Scientist shortage? Maybe not

The predictions are dire, the language grim: Looming shortfalls. Gathering storm. Disturbing mosaic.

No, it's not the economy, global warming or the sitcom industry.

It's the coming shortage of U.S. scientists and engineers, foretold for decades by corporate, government and education advocates. While there have been warnings for more than 50 years, a renewed push over the past four years has earned the attention of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in April, Obama announced "a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science," fulfilling a campaign promise to train 100,000 scientists and engineers during his presidency.

Only problem: We may not have jobs for them all.

As the push to train more young people in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers gains steam, a few prominent skeptics are warning that it may be misguided — and that rhetoric about the USA losing its world pre-eminence in science, math and technology may be a stretch.

One example: Numbers from the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics issued Tuesday showed the unemployment rate for electrical engineers hit a record high, 8.6%, in the second quarter, more than doubling from 4.1% in the first quarter.

The rate for all engineers climbed to 5.5%, up from 3.9% in the first quarter. Those are still better than the nation's overall unemployment rate of 9.7%, but the world is also still minting thousands of new graduates.

U.S. colleges graduated about 460,000 scientists and engineers combined in 2005 (many in social and behavioral sciences), according to the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, emerging nations such as India and China produced nearly 700,000 engineers alone. But the slow growth of U.S.-born STEM workers, analysts say, may have less to do with funding commitments than with cloudy career paths and low wages relative to other specialized careers such as medicine, law and finance.

Among the most vocal critics: Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which funds basic scientific, economic and civic research. He says there are "substantially more scientists and engineers" graduating from the USA's universities than can find attractive jobs.

"Indeed, science and engineering careers in the U.S. appear to be relatively unattractive" compared with other career paths, he told Congress in 2007.

Older and 'overqualified'

Alan Weissberger, a 61-year-old telecommunications engineer in Santa Clara, Calif., admits to being "stumped" when people say there's a shortage of engineers. He has been unemployed since 2005. Unemployment, especially among older Silicon Valley engineers, has been a constant reality for the past 20 years, he says. "But it's certainly gone into 'hyper mode' in the last six."

Many of his fellow over-40 engineers hear repeatedly that they're actually overqualified for many of the jobs they seek; he recalls that a friend, laid off from Nortel in 2002, couldn't find work for 1½ years, until Santa Clara University hired him — as its dean of engineering.

"We do need to work on our STEM education, we do need to draw more people into the field," says Gordon Day, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA. But he says the market for high-tech workers "is cyclic and it always will be."

BLS found that 29,000 electrical engineers were out of work from April to June.

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