Spot on discussion of a fake crisis

Over at IEEE Spectrum, there is a wonderful article that delves into the latest phase of the alleged massive need for more STEM workers. This is a topic I’ve covered a number of times, here, here, here, and here.

TL;DR version for newbies: If someone is trying to sell you on this to get you to decide to go get an STEM degree, then there’s a pretty good probability you are in the process of being deceived. There is no large pot of jobs at the end of this rainbow. Actually, quite the opposite.

Longer version: Economics works, whether or not you want it to. This causes massive frustration in a number of political an policy circles … as their theories depend critically upon that not happening. Which should tell you something about their theories. But that is a digression.

Basic economics articulates a law of supply and demand. Tight supply and strong demand means higher prices. Excess supply and strong demand yields stable or weakly falling prices, and excess supply and weak demand yields falling prices. You don’t have a choice in this matter. This is how markets work.

The article notes something very basic about the market for STEM labor

Given all of the above, it is difficult to make a case that there has been, is, or will soon be a STEM labor shortage. ?If there was really a STEM labor market crisis, you?d be seeing very different behaviors from companies,? notes Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York state. ?You wouldn?t see companies cutting their retirement contributions, or hiring new workers and giving them worse benefits packages. Instead you would see signing bonuses, you?d see wage increases. You would see these companies really training their incumbent workers.?

Spot on. If the demand were high, and the supply were low, prices paid for STEM labor would increase. This is how economics works.

So if this is the way it works, then we can use behavior of the market to make inferences on the supply and demand. What is the market doing in general?

But the price of labor has not risen, as you would expect it to do if STEM workers were scarce. In computing and IT, wages have generally been stagnant for the past decade, according to the EPI and other analyses. And over the past 30 years, according to the Georgetown report, engineers? and engineering technicians? wages have grown the least of all STEM wages and also more slowly than those in non-STEM fields; while STEM workers as a group have seen wages rise 33 percent and non-STEM workers? wages rose by 23 percent, engineering salaries grew by just 18 percent. The situation is even more grim for those who get a Ph.D. in science, math, or engineering. The Georgetown study states it succinctly: ?At the highest levels of educational attainment, STEM wages are not competitive.?

Wouldn’t that have been some nice information to tell a young impressionable (read as “naive”) undergraduate with stars in their eyes thinking about a career doing what they love and getting paid well for it? They can do what they love, but they need another source of capital to handle their life needs.

This aspect aside, the big question is why … why are policy makers and those who influence them suggesting … no … fearmongering … basic economic and even military risk, for lack of sufficient number of STEM workers? Its obviously not the case that there is a deficit. Or even a dip. There’s a strong surplus. What possible reason would someone have for overtly misrepresenting reality like this?

Follow the money.

I postulated many years ago that academic departments wanted a permanent cheap labor pool (grad students/post docs). With many people in the pipeline, wages are low and stagnant. I’d heard during the dot com bubble that CS grad students and postdocs were harder to come by for some departments. They needed to pay competitive wages to keep their workers. How awful. [sarcasm tag]

But its far more than that.

Imagine if we deprived large companies of their cheap STEM labor pools. If wages followed the market drivers, and they could control supply, what would happen if they kept the supply high?

This is not a theoretical or even tin-foil hat question. Look long and hard in the US at the tech companies demanding H1B visa number increases. Any conception of why they might want to do that?

Really, one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to grasp the nuances of this. Its basic supply and demand. Massively increase the supply, keep the demand the same and prices will stagnate or fall. Which they’ve been doing.

There is no shortage of STEM workers. There never was a shortage of STEM workers. And chances are good that there never really will be a shortage of STEM workers.

What there are, are policy makers influenced by those whom employ STEM workers. They are the ones that want to control prices they pay for labor in the future.

In my youth in grad school, we called this alleged shortage, “The Myth”. New decade, new players, same goals. Same Myth. Not any truer now than it was then.

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