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.

Educators and others have been clamoring for more funding for math and science since the Soviets sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957. The push continued in the 1980s, when the National Science Foundation joined top universities to warn of "looming shortfalls" in science and engineering workers, even as employment data showed a surplus. That prompted then-Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, to call the predictions "the equivalent to shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater."

The push picked up speed in 2005 with a key National Research Council report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates told Congress last year U.S. companies "face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs. … If we don't reverse these trends, our competitive advantage will erode."

But John Marburger, who was George W. Bush's top science adviser, says it's a mistake to think of "scientists" or "engineers" as a generic job classification — or that Americans should fret over shortages overall.

"We definitely need more computer scientists and some kinds of electrical engineers," he says. "We need more technicians of all kinds. We probably do not need more string theorists, but we do need more physicists and chemists working on exotic materials."

Lynne Munson, executive director of Common Core, a Washington non-profit that supports liberal-arts education in public schools, says it's not even clear whether the emphasis on STEM skills has produced more scientists and mathematicians. "We'd argue that you're more likely to get people excelling in all fields if they're given a rich, comprehensive education from the start," she says. "You want more physicists? Make sure kids are getting literature and history."

In 2007, amid a renewed push in Congress to get more taxpayer funding for science teachers — and more student aid for science and engineering majors — Teitelbaum told lawmakers that no objective data have found overall shortages of scientists and engineers.

Such warnings, he said, are "simply the expressions of interests by interest groups and their lobbyists." He cited companies that employ scientists and engineers, universities, and even immigration lawyers.

Limited growth possible

Rapid increases in federal funding for research and education, Teitelbaum said, are "more likely than not to further destabilize career paths for junior scientists," as more funding will generate "substantial growth" in slots for graduate students but only limited growth in the number of career scientific positions down the line.

John Holdren, Obama's science adviser, disagrees.

He says he's "optimistic that the jobs for them will materialize."

"Obviously we've suffered in the past from a boom-and-bust syndrome in funding for science and technology," he says, "and we're looking to try to avoid that going forward."

Holdren says he has considered "the size of the pipeline vs. the size of the market," but he and other administration advisers are convinced the USA needs more — not fewer — scientists and engineers. "More and more the challenges we face are going to require big infusions of science and technology to get solved."

In his National Academies speech, for example, Obama pointed to energy and climate as areas needing infusions of scientific talent.

But nearly two years after he testified before Congress, Teitelbaum says the global financial crisis — and the U.S. government's bid to provide stimulus aid for research — may make the employment picture even worse.

Many of the engineers and mathematicians who helped Wall Street firms develop complex credit default swaps and financial derivatives, he says, are finding themselves out of work as their employers shed jobs. And the billions of dollars that Congress promises to help sustain research will probably dry up after two or three years.

"We don't know how that's going to work out through the system," he says.

Holdren notes that Obama has committed to spending 3% of the USA's gross domestic product on research. In the long run, he says, it'll require "a substantial stepping up by the private sector, which funds about two-thirds of R&D (research and development) in this country right now and will have to continue to do that."

Scan Bureau of Labor Statistics projections and you won't find words like "crisis" or even "shortfall."

In its most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook, BLS says engineering employment is, indeed, expected to grow 11% by 2016 — a 1.3% average yearly increase typical for all occupations — but that the number of engineering graduates "should be in rough balance with the number of job openings."

The number of engineering bachelor's degrees grew 10% from 2000 to 2005, according to the National Science Foundation, a 1.7% average yearly increase.

You won't find hand-wringing, but you find handbook analysts warning that off-shoring of engineering work "will likely dampen domestic employment growth to some degree."

Worldwide, BLS says, well-trained, often English-speaking engineers are "willing to work at much lower salaries than U.S. engineers."

A good problem to have?

Meanwhile, a few education policy experts say the push for more scientists and engineers has already prompted many public high schools to dilute Advanced Placement classes in a bid to attract more kids.

"We're doing this with the same juvenile, fad-minded overselling and incoherence that we deploy in the face of any major new education project," says Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

"We want to imagine that we can make schools dance in a way that'll quickly deliver subtle refinements in output," he says. "The problem is that we can't currently provide schools that do their core work passably well. All of our STEM aspirations risk becoming a whole new set of distractions, programs and silliness — and all in order to make, at most, marginal differences."

But Education Secretary Arne Duncan says a surplus of STEM graduates is a problem he'd like to have.

"As we get more and more of these technological breakthroughs, there are going to be jobs in fields available that don't even exist today. If these guys can come out and be those innovators and be those creators and inventors, they're going to create new opportunities that we can't even envision or begin to comprehend today."

Contributing: Traci Watson