Lies, Damn Lies, and (the statistics on) the Number of STEM grads

December 18th, 2007

I confess to being thoroughly confused. The revealed wisdom in US higher ed has been that we are simply not producing enough grads in the STEM area, and we need to do more to attract folks to sciences/engineering/IT etc. The National Academy of Sciences weighed in on this as well. We certainly keep hearing that here in our department, with exhortations to increase enrollment.

However, the Urban institute folks (Lowell and Salzman) claim that not only is the US not lagging behind other nations in the quality of STEM education at the school level, it in fact overproduced STEM grads (three times as many as the net growth in jobs) in the period from 1985 to 2000. So not enough or too many STEM grads — which is it ?

This of course further muddies the immigration/ H1B debates. The IT industry claims that there is a shortage of IT grads, and so they need to be able to hire more from overseas. The “Immigration Restrictionists” of various flavors, and the Programmers Guild like organizations, argue that this is just a part of plan by corporations to keep the wages in the IT sector depressed. Many of them have blogged about this new Urban Institute study, offering it as proof that the H1B type programs can be scrapped.

However, if the primary push behind lobbying for increased skilled immigration/H1 workers was depressing (or at least not increasing) the wages, then a factor of three overproduction within the US should take care of this, right ? In other words, all the folks in STEM fields who weren’t getting jobs in their area would sign up for short MSCE/CCNA type courses (or AAs in IT) and then get hired. I presume Bill Gates or others don’t particularly like foreigners enough to go through and pay for the H1B/Green card process when they would achieve the same wage depressing affects by hiring US citizens retrained in IT areas from the oversupply in the overall STEM areas?  On the other hand, there is  a recent statement by Fed chief Bernanke doing rounds of the blogosphere that a non increase in STEM wages would indicate that there wasn’t a shortage in the area. 

Net result, I am not sure what to believe anymore.  In admissions events, I dutifully present data from CRA (which in turn got it from BLS)  that seems to indicate that within the wider STEM areas, IT (strictly, Mathematical and Computer Sciences) would be the subfield where the total production of degrees would fall short of the projected job openings, even factoring in all the outsourcing.