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Are We “Falling Behind” on Engineers and Scientists?

Michael S. Teitelbaum has a new book Falling Behind?:  Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent about the job market in science and engineering. He identifies five cycles of alarm, boom, and bust in the science and engineering job market since World War II. These cycles include the Sputnik campaign and the Y2K programming campaign.

Cover of Falling Behind?

A new book deciphers what’s really happening to US STEM careers.

The book is useful in shining a light on the similar tactics used to pump demand for science and engineering in each cycle. The initial events and circumstances change. For example, the Russian lead in launching Sputnik may actually have been the desire by US surveillance to have Russians set the precedent of a satellite overflying another country. The Y2K concerns conveniently dovetailed into the dot-com bubble. Yet, all the five cycles include a public relations campaign by government or business for more people trained in science or engineering, a boom in science or engineering, and a downturn in the science or engineering job market when funding declines.

Michael S. Teitelbaum is a demographer, a former Rhodes scholar, and has been on the faculty of Oxford University and Princeton University. He wrote the book as a fellow at Harvard University.  He wrote two Op-Eds recently in The Atlantic to accompany the book. His ideas are included in the Los Angeles Times and in a review of the book at Science Careers, affiliated with Science magazine.

The author distinguishes between problems that get confused. We often hear complaints about inadequate primary education in science, mathematics, and engineering, and then the advocates jump to arguing about a shortage of professional scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Michael S. Teitelbaum points out that many locations that perform well on school tests are islands or near-islands (Singapore, Hong Kong) or ethnically fairly uniform (Finland). The USA has inequalities of education, but also has quite adequate numbers of scientists and engineers who score very high on the same tests. There are good reasons for better training in science and mathematics, but we cannot justify better science and math training based on a shortage of the best and brightest with those skills right at home here in the USA.  Besides, the complaints about bad science and math training are usually accompanied by pleas from corporations for greater numbers of H-1B high tech guestworker visas, rather than for funds to provide a better education here at home.

The book also documents why universities are exempt from the H-1B visa caps and how during the Administration of Bill Clinton industry successfully fought against any requirement to offer jobs first to US citizens before acquiring a permit for H-1B visas. The book has a whole chapter on various studies of the science and engineering labor market, who did the studies, and how the authorship affected the conclusions. All the studies that claim to find a shortage had bad methods and were funded by industry. General Accounting Office used to review these studies at the request of the US Congress.

I wish the issue of H-1B visas would get even half the news coverage as the beneficial coverage exposing the problems with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is frustrating that jobs in science, mathematics, and engineering are exposed to H-1B visas at precisely the same time as the deep cuts to government research funding.

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