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What STEM Skills Gap? An Interview With Michael Teitelbaum, Author of “Falling Behind?”

POSTED 03/31/2014
By Robert McGuire

Below is my interview with Michael Teitelbaum, author of the new book, Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, which explores cycles of public anxiety about the STEM skills gap. Is there a shortage of workplace-ready scientific talent? Teitelbaum argues that frequently either the gap is exaggerated, that a complex set of factors is oversimplified or that there is no gap at all. Since so much of the conversation here is about the skills gap, particularly in high-demand STEM fields, we wanted to hear more.

Michael is a former vice president at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he worked for three decades, particularly on initiatives to support young scientists early in their careers. Because of that work he was honored as Person of the Year by Science Careers magazine in 2013. He is now a Senior Research Associate at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program. Falling Behind? was published by Princeton University Press in March.

You can play or download the recording of our telephone interview or read an abbreviated and edited transcript below.

What STEM Skills Gap?: An Interview With Michael Teitelbaum [Download]

McGuire: Can you sum up your main argument for us? Because it’s counter to the traditional narrative, obviously.

Teitelbaum: The conventional narrative is that there’s a widespread set of shortages in science and engineering in the U.S. and that if this continues, it’ll cause the U.S. to fall behind its competitors. Another part is that it’s due mainly to the many weaknesses of American K-to-12 education.

The problem with the conventional argument is that there’s really not much in the way of evidence that supports it. There’s really no debate in the mainstream. But almost all of the researchers who have looked into these assumptions or these interpretations have been unable to find any such evidence.

McGuire: Where do you think that perception comes from?

Teitelbaum: It comes from a continuing drumbeat of claims that there are terrible shortages across the board in science and engineering. They mostly come from employer groups and employer lobbyists. But they also come from some parts of the educational community and from governors and quite a few politicians and editorial writers who have taken this set of claims on board and have echoed them.

McGuire: Can you give us some statistics to help us understand this better? If I am a chemistry graduate or an engineering graduate this year, the conventional wisdom is that the world is my oyster, because I’m in high demand in the marketplace. What’s the reality?

Teitelbaum: Well, I think most recent graduates in those fields will tell you that they wished the world were their oyster, but it hasn’t turned out to be that way. It’s certainly true that people with Bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering do better in the current workplace than people who have a high school level of education or people who have Bachelor’s degrees in non-science and engineering fields. But shortages or shortfalls are not there.

There are quite a few people who are unable to find attractive career paths and substantially higher unemployment among recent graduates than you would expect if there were really shortages.

A surplus of STEM graduates?

McGuire: What is the unemployment among recent graduates?

Teitelbaum: Well, it depends again. One of the things that people have to keep in mind is that there’s no such animal as science and engineering as an aggregate kind of concept. There are multiple fields of science and multiple fields of engineering, and they vary from one another over time and over places.

Some fields have been very attractive in recent years. For example, petroleum engineering, which used to be a kind of backwater in engineering with poor demand for recent graduates and relatively low wages, has suddenly become very attractive, partly because of the boom in fracking.

But if you look at recent graduates even in fields that are alleged to have serious shortages, I think you would be surprised to find that in engineering, broadly defined, unemployment among recent graduates is something on the order of seven percent. Computer Science is getting on for eight percent and Information Systems is over 11 percent. So those don’t sound like indicators of terrible shortages in those fields.

A picture complicated by region

McGuire: What do industry leaders or politicians say when you present them with this argument?

Teitelbaum: Some of them say, “Well, we don’t have any problem at all hiring people we want. We get lots more applicants than we could possibly hire and we can be very, very selective.” And others say, “Well, we can’t hire the people we need, and our inability to find them in order to hire them means that we’re holding back on our economic activities.” So, you get lots of different perspectives from different individuals, but also certainly across different industries and at different times and different places.

If you go to Silicon Valley, for example, you will find pretty much a uniform view that there are shortages. If you go to other parts of the country, you won’t find such a uniform view. Silicon Valley is a special hothouse.
It also has serious problems of housing unavailability at affordable prices. But you cannot safely generalize to the country from Silicon Valley. It’s a very special case.

McGuire: So when you read a story that’s quoting some industry leader saying, “We’re having trouble finding people,” it’s not necessarily incorrect in their case. It’s just maybe that’s a story reported within the hothouse?

Teitelbaum: Yes, they’re over-generalizing in many cases, from their own local experience.

McGuire: Do you think there’s an availability of talent that is opting out of the marketplace, because the marketplace is just not rewarding enough?

Teitelbaum: All of the evidence is that a substantial fraction of people getting degrees, including graduate degrees in many science and engineering fields, are choosing to work outside of science and engineering in other occupations that are more rewarding in terms of remuneration and have more demand for their skills.

You can show data very easily that the number of Bachelor degrees earned each year in science and engineering across the board is at least two times as large as the number of hires in science and engineering across the board. That means that  half of the recent graduates are either not getting employed or are being employed outside of science and engineering occupations.

What are the skills needed for the STEM workplace?

McGuire: One of the arguments made in business is that the graduates are simply not prepared for the workplace — that universities are not doing a good enough job preparing these graduates for what the workplace actually needs. Doesn’t that just amount to the same thing as a shortage?

Teitelbaum: Like all of these kinds of subjects, there’s always some truth to those kinds of claims. That’s not the way the public debate is carried on. It’s usually people saying, “Well, this is true, absolutely,” or “This is false, absolutely,” but that’s not the way it actually is.

So are they prepared for the workplace? Well, most people getting degrees have not worked in the workplace in this country. It’s less true in some other countries one can think of.

Improvements needed in degree programs

Professional Science Master’s Degree programs have been growing rapidly around the country. In these degrees, there is a conscious effort to incorporate experience and knowledge necessary for the workplace. So in addition to the technical skills, mathematics, engineering, physics, the students get experience necessary to work in a large organization. This means things like communication skills, management skills, teamwork skills, all of the things that almost all employers say they’re looking for in addition to technical knowledge and expertise.

There’s a second kind of argument that also has truth to it, which is  people are saying is, “Well, there are plenty of engineers or scientists out there, but we need the best.” Well, of course that’s true. There’s always a shortage of the best  by definition. So if that’s the claim, then it’s a much weaker claim than saying that, “The people we are interviewing have not had experience in the workplace and don’t know what to do when they arrive on Monday morning in a company like ours.”

McGuire: Do you think that undergraduate programs ought to be doing things differently to prepare people for the workplace?

Teitelbaum: Yes, I think that that would be desirable also. A lot of people don’t go on to Master’s degrees, and if they’re going to be successful in their careers, they need to have those skills, too. So it would be desirable for students to work as interns or whatever. And it would be desirable for them to get a breadth of skills in addition to the field in which they’re majoring.

Rethinking the lessons of the Sputnik moment

McGuire: What are the policy implications of the research you did?

Teitelbaum: It’s not a good idea to sound the alarm about shortages and produce a kind of response that generates a booming supply, which then, when they finish their degree, they find the demands have slackened off and they’re facing a very chilly labor market.

By my count, since World War II, there have been five rather destructive cycles of this kind in the United States in which the alarm about current or looming shortages is sounded.

The government responds in a way designed to increase the production or the entry of more scientists and engineers, and, by the time they’re available, the demand has slackened and a lot of those people find themselves out of luck. That’s very destructive, because the word gets back to the high school kids and the undergraduates [who think], “People aren’t finding good career paths. I think I’ll do something else.”

McGuire: The most obvious example is the Sputnik moment. What happened half a generation after Sputnik once young people have worked their way through the educational system?

Teitelbaum: It wasn’t pretty. By the time the Apollo moon mission achieved that spectacular success or set of successes on moon landings, the level of interest in continuing the very heavy funding of these activities waned. In the meantime, the number of people aspiring to go into science and engineering fields, in part due to the kind of rhetoric about the need for more scientists and engineers, graduated a little too late to get in on that boom and found themselves in trouble when they came out looking for jobs and careers.

How should students prepare?

McGuire: Let’s consider a college freshman right now registering for your courses next year. If they were a potential chemistry student or engineering student or biology student, what would you advise that student?

Teitelbaum: If you love chemistry or mathematics or physics or engineering and that’s what you really want to do, you should do it. You should do it, though, with your eyes open. You should do as much research about what the careers paths in these fields are like as you’ve done in the field itself, in the substance of the field. I would urge people to not go into it blindly, to understand what it’s like to be an “x,” whatever “x” is. And once you know that, go ahead and do it if you understand what it’s like.

They presume [there will be high demand] because they’re being told that there are shortages. Don’t just assume that because there’s a cacophony of claims about looming shortages of scientists and engineers that you’re going to have an attractive career if you finish in those fields.

McGuire: What about mid-career scientists? What pressures are they facing and what are good strategies for adapting?

Teitelbaum: Again, lots of variations by field.

Mid-career people in petroleum engineering are doing extremely well. They’re being offered hiring bonuses and very high salaries and other remuneration. In biomedical sciences, which is usually a Ph.D. plus a postdoc career path, things are pretty grim.

A lot of people are stuck in long and lengthening postdocs, unable to find the kind of career path that they had been planning on as they spent most of their 20’s doing their Ph.D. and their postdoc, because the academic tenure track faculty position in biomedical fields is not growing very fast, or it may be declining in some ways. And yet the number of people who are qualified and looking for entry-level positions in that career path is rising pretty rapidly.

Staying nimble in STEM fields

McGuire: SkilledUp is especially focused on helping people access opportunities to build skills. So, apart from the technical knowledge that you might learn in a program with an academic focus, what skills do you feel like scientists at different points in their careers ought to be developing now in order to be flexible and adaptable?

Teitelbaum: I mentioned earlier the Professional Science Master degrees which are configured by the faculty who create them to provide skills in management, in finance, in ethics, in teamwork, in communication. These are all professional skills that most non-academic employers consider to be very important. If you focus entirely and energetically on the technical side only, you are going to be less attractive to those kinds of employers.

You have to be flexible, too. You cannot say, “Well, I did my Ph.D. on this particular small area of research and my expectation is that I will continue to work in that small area of research, refine my skills, continue my research trajectory in that area.” You have to be willing to work across disciplines with people outside of your discipline and certainly outside the narrow part of your discipline that you focused in. You’ve got to be able to communicate with them, and you’ve got to be willing to be reassigned from one project to another without saying, “No, no, I really am working on this topic, and that’s all I really want to do.” That’s just not going to fly with most employers outside of academic research.


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