Many interested organizations joined together last month at a summit
addressing the size, training and capacity of the nation's science and
engineering (S&E) workforce. Representatives from at least 40 scientific
and engineering societies, government agencies, think tanks and professional
associations gathered for a day and a half to present their views at
this "Pan-organizational Summit on the U.S. S&E Workforce,"
sponsored by the National Academies' Government-University-Industry
Research Roundtable. Low domestic production of S&E workers, the
approaching retirement age of many in the S&E workforce, and the
nation's dependence on foreign workers have made this a topic of concern
It was apparent that the economy has affected various fields of science
and engineering differently, with some experiencing unusually high unemployment
and others seeing a pressing need for more workers. Even so, there seemed
to be a consensus that K-12 science, technology, engineering and math
(STEM) education must be improved, that more and timelier data is needed,
and that the costs and rewards of pursuing an S&E career must be
better understood. There was also general agreement that the capacity
of the S&E workforce would be enhanced if workers' training prepared
them to adapt to shifting employment needs.
Shirley Malcolm of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science pointed out that while the U.S. is still the world leader in
the S&E enterprise, its leadership position depends in part on the
foreign workers that help make up the S&E workforce. With other
countries building their R&D capacity and creating more opportunities
for skilled workers, she said, continued dependence on this influx of
workers is risky and the U.S. should focus on strengthening its domestic
workforce. To do so, many speakers agreed, will require that the U.S.
strengthen its pre-college STEM education, and determine how to make
science and engineering careers more attractive, particularly for women,
underrepresented minorities, and the disabled.
"Those who are concerned about whether the production of U.S.
scientists and engineers is sufficient for national needs must pay serious
attention to whether careers in science and engineering are attractive
relative to other career opportunities available to U.S. students,"
warned Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He and
others emphasized the significant time and financial commitment of earning
a graduate degree in science compared to other professional degrees.
It has been "commonplace" in the last 10-15 years, he said,
to hear claims about looming shortages in the S&E workforce, but
"labor market projections that go very far into the future are
notoriously problematic." Teitelbaum cited evidence that "overall
labor markets for scientists and engineers are relatively slack"
and vary considerably across fields and over time.
Harris Miller of the Information Technology Association of America
stated that the slowdown of the information technology (IT) industry
"has resulted in a decreased demand for IT workers." However,
he said employers are still having problems finding qualified IT workers
with needed skills, and his organization is concerned about the field's
long-term ability to produce and maintain an adequate supply of workers.
Other speakers reported that some types of engineering- and chemistry-related
jobs were moving offshore and demand was down for U.S. workers in those
fields. On the other hand, the manufacturing industry is anticipating
a labor shortage, said Phyllis Eisen of the National Association of
Manufacturers, and is "scared" that it does not have the qualified
workforce to respond to customers' needs and stay competitive.
Representatives from several federal agencies described difficulties
hiring qualified S&E workers, and expect the situation to worsen
as the federal S&E workforce ages. According to Mary Good of the
Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America, over 50 percent
of federal S&E workers may retire in the next decade. She remarked
that U.S. production of bachelor's degrees in engineering and the non-life
sciences dropped during the 1990s and suggested that the decline might
be attributable, at least in part, to the long-term decline in federal
funding for mathematical and physical sciences and engineering. Good
presented data showing that, for these fields, students' degree choices
correlate strongly with the availability of federal research funding.
There was substantial agreement that more timely and comprehensive
data is needed to understand S&E employment trends and the factors
that affect them. Bill Butz of the RAND Science and Technology Policy
Institute presented a paper that posed the questions, "Is there
a shortage of scientists and engineers? How would we know?" The
paper, using production of PhD scientists and engineers as an example,
looked at a number of possible definitions of a shortage: declining
production; competitors' share of production increasing; production
lower than producers desire or the nation deems necessary; or production
not meeting market demand. Butz indicated that much of the available
data is not current enough, and the definitions of shortage used by
various groups are not consistent enough, to give definitive answers.
It became obvious, as the summit continued, that there are differing
conceptions of "shortage" that address different disciplines,
segments of the workforce, and degree levels, over differing time horizons.
Most participants agreed, though, that in order for the nation to be
prepared for future economic developments and S&E workforce needs,
it is necessary to improve K-12 STEM education so students are well-prepared
to pursue careers in science and engineering, and that if S&E workers
are trained to be flexible and agile, the nation's capacity to fill
its future S&E workforce needs will be enhanced. Some disciplines
are considering how to revise their degree programs to increase the
broad-based general education of students even as the fields require
ever-more-specialized knowledge. Several speakers raised the idea of
bachelor's-plus or professional master's degree programs.
The result of the summit was a series of consensus recommendations
for further action. Working groups are being formed to address each
of these items: (1) Develop a coordinated, multi-sector effort to improve
the "domestic S&E pipeline issue;" (2) Make STEM education
better and more attractive and improve teacher training; (3) Target
student financial aid to S&E majors; (4) Reform the S&E undergraduate
experience, both curriculum and pedagogy, to attract a wider variety
of students; (5) Address the "poor effort-reward ratio" of
S&E careers; (6) Design interconnecting career and education pathways
and resources so S&E workers and students can develop "agility;"
(7) Ensure federal support of lifelong learning, and focus H-1B visa
fees on retraining of S&E workers; (8) Increase participation of
women and minorities in the S&E enterprise; and (9) Develop a comprehensive
national database and a model of S&E education and workforce pathways
to understand the relevant factors and "guide intelligent policymaking."