Not the financial market, but the market for highly trained folks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In particular, why do people keep talking about the need for a larger talent pool in STEM when so many Ph.D.s and postdocs are having a rough time finding permanent positions?
Today, Inside Higher Ed has an article about what demographer Michael S. Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes of this apparently paradoxical state of affairs:
Looking at whether there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers, Teitelbaum argued that such claims reappear roughly every 10 years. In the late 1980s, he said, speculations of looming shortfalls were “wildly wrong,” while successful lobbying in the late 1990s to triple the number of H-1B visas to fulfill a supposed shortage coincided with the IT bust — and a resulting collapse in demand for workers — in 2001.
More recently, he said, similar claims are arising with testimony from heavy hitters in the technology sector such as Bill Gates — but still, he argued, the evidence doesn’t support the view that there is a shortage of scientists or engineers. A shortage of workers would imply an increase in wages, but remuneration remains flat; in general, he said, there is significant variation over time and by field, with a mix of “hot” fields and “slack” markets.
The demographer finds no evidence of a shortage of scientists or engineers.
On that basis, I’m inclined to say that anyone who wants to claim there is such a shortage is on the hook to produce the evidence. (Additionally, if these shortage-seers are also employers of scientists and engineers, they could start acting like they really believe there’s a shortage by paying the scarce scientists and engineers in their employ accordingly.)
Teitelbaum also questioned why federal spending supports Ph.D. completion despite the lack of demand for such degrees by non-academic employers, who mainly look for bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In effect, he said, the “self-defeating” practice of funding science education via research grants created a “mismatch” between graduates and employers.
There is part of the labor equation that Teitelbaum doesn’t discuss (or, if he does discuss it, that isn’t mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article): the extent to which the current numbers of Ph.D. trainees are necessary to the running of their advisors’ research programs. If the numbers of Ph.D. trainees were significantly produced, what would that do to the productivity (in terms of papers published, for example) of the PI’s lab? What effect would that have on the PI’s ability to win funding and secure tenure?
The parts of the system are all connected to each other. A change that has a positive effect on one thing won’t necessarily have a positive effect on all the parts of the system, at least not right away.
Teitelbaum also has a lot to say about mismatches between the NIH funding available and the scale of research facilities and staffing involved in NIH-funded research. I’m going to leave discussion of that problem, and of Teitelbaum’s tentative solutions, to the bloggers who focus on such matters.
As far as dealing with mismatch of perceived supply and actual demand in the STEM labor pool, here’s the demographer’s recommendation:
[R]ather than pushing students toward Ph.D.’s — which are geared for those pursuing academic research careers — Teitelbaum touted the effectiveness of professional science master’s (PSM) degrees for science professionals with business and innovation skills, which more closely match what many employers are looking for from graduates in STEM fields. So far, he said there were 117 such programs in the United States at over 60 universities in 25 states.
“I would say the progress is real, but these are still new and fragile degrees, and the Sloan Foundation’s goal is to make this degree a normal part of U.S. higher education,” he said.
My guess is that PSMs, like most master’s degrees, will cost the student money. (In the U.S., anyway, most STEM Ph.D. students have their tuition costs paid by graduate fellowships, while STEM master’s degrees are usually a revenue stream for universities.) This might put off the newly graduated and broke from pursuing a PSM, but if there were a high probability of a well-paid position at the other end, this path might be more appealing than the lower-debt Ph.D. with a smaller probability of a permanent STEM position at the other end.