I was talking about this issue with a friend of mine, a brilliant PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. We were walking by the quad during one of the big tech job fairs here at Purdue University, where some of the most powerful and profitable companies in science and technology come to entice Purdue students to apply for jobs. Purdue is a good school generally, but its reputation largely comes from its top-flight engineering and computer science programs. Looking at all of these billion-dollar companies spending time, money, and energy on developing elaborate booths, all to attract applications for employment, it was hard not to believe in the notion of a STEM shortage.
When I mentioned that point to my friend, he laughed and said, “These companies are all trying to get the same 50 students.” This, more than anything, may be the source of the persistent STEM shortage myth: the inarguable value of being a star in a STEM field. There’s little doubt that people at the top of the food chain in computer science or electrical engineering or biomedical engineering, etc., often enjoy fantastic material and economic gain.
But this is a banal point: it’s good to be a star. It’s good to be a star engineer in the same way it’s good to be a star musician or a star psychologist or a star writer. What public policy and politics demand is that we pay attention not to stars but to the median person. And the median American is facing a world of stagnant wages, the arbitrary nature of the employment market, and the constant fear of our financial system’s boom and bust cycle. The problem is that by definition, very few people get to be stars. I don’t doubt that the median Purdue STEM graduate is doing well. But Purdue is a top-flight STEM school, and half of our graduates will be below the median, and many who start those majors fail out of them, and the country is filled with schools who graduate STEM students who can’t get jobs. Basing our perception of the employment market on the outcomes of those 50 star students is pure folly.I think Freddie's friend is probably right -- all those companies aren't trying to get warm bodies, they're trying to get star students. I think we've seen this with (my old nemesis) and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris, who was commenting about paying new chemical engineers $120,000 a year. Let's leave aside the question of whether or not it was accurate; it's likely that Dow has the money to chase the new star graduate and pay them a top salary, whatever the number. I wonder if those CEOs and their minions see what they're paying their new people and say, salaries are going up! We must have a shortage!
This doesn't excuse the behavior of the STEM shortage folks, but I wonder if it explains the nature of the distorted claims that they routinely make.