Can We Have Too Many STEM Workers?

I read two pieces about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce this morning: an op-ed in USA Today and an editorial in the Washington Post. Both reference a recent Census Bureau study, which found that only a quarter of bachelor’s degree graduates in STEM fields end up working in those fields. But from there, the two pieces head in very different directions.

The Post says Census got the number of STEM jobs wrong, because, in fact, one out of every five jobs requires STEM skills, even if the students end up working outside their field. That’s stretching definitions, though the idea that many STEM grads can use what they learn outside their field of study is certainly true. But, amazingly, the Post also says the numbers don’t really matter: “Whatever the number generated, it should not be seen as determining the need for STEM education.” Whether one STEM worker in four finds a job in his field of study, or only one in ten, the education is so valuable we can’t have too many STEM majors, according to the Post editorial. Why, even farmers should have STEM degrees because, “many farmers rely on genetic modification of crops.” That’s just silly. Many truck drivers rely on civil engineering, but they don’t need engineering degrees any more than a farmer planting hybrid corn needs a math or genetics degree.

The Post’s editors believe there’s no such thing as an oversupply of STEM graduates, but their editorial doesn’t review the boom and bust history of STEM graduate oversupply, or even mention what effect oversupply might have on the earnings or aspirations of the students who have paid for and worked to complete STEM bachelor degrees. By contrast, the USA Today authors (some of whom have done research with EPI before), all of whom are academics with close ties to actual students, do care about what happens to STEM grads after they leave school and look for work. They are rightly concerned that the wages of IT personnel have been flat for 16 years, and they worry that overproducing STEM grads, coupled with industry’s immigration proposal to triple the number of IT guestworkers, will suppress wage growth and deny IT workers the middle class security most would like, let alone a fair share of the tech industry’s fabulous profits.

If too many educated STEM workers chase too few STEM jobs, wages will continue to stagnate or even fall for them. The tech industry believes it would benefit from that, and its leaders have shown a ruthless desire to suppress the wages of their skilled workforce. The USA Today authors point out that the biggest names in IT, including Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe, unlawfully conspired to keep their workers’ wages artificially low, but were discovered and sued for antitrust violations and restraint of trade. Some of the plaintiff IT workers are objecting to a proposed $300 million settlement of their antitrust claims against those four corporate giants as too little, while suits against other IT firms have not yet made it to trial or settlement talks. The corporate conspiracy is estimated to have cost the workforce several billion dollars in lost wages.

The industry’s efforts to suppress wage growth through illegal conspiracies and to import guest workers on visas that deny them the most basic of labor protections (i.e., the right to freely shop around between employers for the highest wage they can find) barely raise eyebrows among members of Congress, who are instinctively drawn to the view that “being competitive in the world market” means keeping labor costs low.

So what if the corporations’ profits are astronomical and their CEOs’ salaries are extravagantly high? Congress and most of the media equate what’s good for Apple and Google executives with what’s good for the country.

But really, if the economy is to work for more than just the 1 percent, our focus ought to be on increasing the wages and salaries of employees outside the executive suite, rather than profits, stock prices, and CEO compensation, all of which are inflated by keeping salaries low. Claiming, as the Post does, that we can never have too many STEM workers leads to destructive policies, such as flooding the labor market with foreign guestworkers earning below-average salaries. Anyone who cares about the U.S. students studying for STEM degrees has to be shocked and alarmed that already, one-third to one-half of new IT jobs are filled by guestworkers. What will happen if industry gets its way and the number of H-1B workers from abroad doubles or triples, while other temporary and permanent visa categories are also expanded to appease tech companies? What will happen to job opportunities and salaries in STEM occupations? As the USA Today authors ask, “How many more Americans will be frozen out of the middle class?” The damage could be severe and long lasting.