Public Policy

Adequacy of the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce

By Congressional Research Service

The following article is excerpted from a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report (CRS R43061, 19 Feb. 2014) authored by John F. Sargent, Jr.  CRS reports are prepared specifically to help Members of Congress and their staff understand important policy issues and options, but are not intended to make policy recommendations or provide analysis advocating specific congressional action(s).  Copies of CRS reports can be obtained from congressional offices by constituent request.  A copy of this report with full references is available on the IEEE-USA website at: https://ieeeusa.org/public-policy/log/

The adequacy of the U.S. science and engineering workforce has been an ongoing concern of Congress for more than 60 years. Scientists and engineers are widely believed to be essential to  U.S. technological leadership, innovation, manufacturing, and services, and thus vital to U.S. economic strength, national defense, and other societal needs.

Congress has enacted many programs to support the education and development of scientists and engineers. Congress has also undertaken broad efforts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to prepare a greater number of students to pursue science and engineering (S&E) degrees.  In addition, some policy makers have sought to increase the number of foreign scientists and engineers working in the United States through changes in visa and immigration policies.

While there is a broad consensus on the important role of scientists and engineers to the United States, policy makers, business leaders, academicians, S&E professional society analysts, economists, and others hold diverse views with respect to the adequacy of the S&E workforce and related policy issues. In particular, there are varying perspectives about whether a shortage of scientists and engineers exists in the United States, what the nature of such a shortage might be (e.g., too few people with S&E degrees, a mismatch of worker skills and employer needs), and whether the federal government should undertake policy interventions to address a putative shortage or allow market forces to work in this labor market.

Here are some general ways in which their views may be expressed:

  • A shortage exists. There is a shortage (or a looming shortage) of scientists and engineers (or alternatively, an inadequate supply of workers with degrees in science and engineering fields), and this may result in the loss of U.S. scientific, engineering, technological, and industrial leadership, with consequent effects on areas such as economic growth, job creation, standard of living, and national security.

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  • No shortage exists. Assertions of a broad shortage of scientists and engineers are not supported by the data when considering indicators such as employment growth, wage growth, and unemployment rates.

  • More scientists and engineers are needed regardless of the existence of a shortage. Historically, federal policies, programs, and investments have contributed to the development of the United States’ scientific and engineering workforce. Regardless of whether demand currently exceeds supply, increasing the number of U.S. scientists and engineers will increase U.S. innovation, economic performance, and job creation. Even if there is not a shortage of scientists and engineers, jobs in many occupations require a higher level of STEM knowledge than ever before.  Students who earn S&E degrees gain thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and STEM knowledge that will enable them to be successful not only in S&E occupations, but also in S&E-related careers and in non-S&E fields where they can apply their S&E knowledge and skills.

  • Government interventions in the S&E labor market to address perceived shortages may introduce inefficiencies. Federal government efforts to increase the number of scientists and engineers by incentivizing the pursuit of degrees in S&E disciplines and/or increasing immigration quotas may result in less efficient operation of the S&E labor market. For example, too many students may be educated in S&E for the number of jobs available and graduates who find S&E jobs may receive lower salaries.

  • Workforce projections are unreliable for predicting shortages. Long-term projections for S&E occupations are unreliable.  Relying on such projections may result in the preparation of too many or too few students with S&E degrees or in mismatches between the students’ education and market needs. Among the difficulties in making long-term projections are unexpected changes in the mix of industrial output or employment due to technological or market changes, factor substitution (e.g., substitution of capital for labor) due to changes in prices, changes in retirement behavior, the availability of foreign labor, labor market demographics, and government policies.

  • There may be shortages in certain industries, occupations, or fields. Shortages may exist in some S&E occupations or for certain employers, for example in new and emerging S&E fields (e.g., nanotechnology); cyclical industries (e.g., aerospace); in fields where foreign scientists and engineers may not be employed due to export control laws; and for employers otherwise limited, in general or for specific purposes, to using only U.S. citizens.

    • The labor market will resolve such needs. If markets are allowed to operate freely (i.e., without government interventions), any short-term �shortages� will be resolved as wages equilibrate demand and supply, as the labor supply increases (e.g., as more students earn S&E degrees) in response to market signals, or through substitution of alternative inputs.

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    • The potential adverse consequences of even discrete shortages require government interventions. These shortages should be met with federal efforts to increase supply or the United States may face the loss of technological leadership in new and emerging fields, lower economic performance, and diminished national security.

  • Industry assertions of shortages are driven by a desire to reduce costs and/or increase current knowledge. Industry assertions of S&E shortages are driven primarily by a desire to lower their labor costs through increased supply by providing a continuous stream of young, lower-cost recent college graduates through education, training, and immigration. These new hires can replace older, higher-cost workers with less current knowledge.

  • The real issue is a skills mismatch, not a shortage of people. The difficulty employers have in meeting their S&E workforce needs (in particular their information technology workforce needs) results primarily from a mismatch between the specific skills�or combinations of knowledge, skills, and experience�needed by employers and those held by S&E workers.

  • Expanding immigration can help address the shortage. Immigration policies directed at increasing the number of foreign scientists and engineers in the United States puts the creativity of the world’s best and brightest to work for the U.S. economy and reduces the loss of U.S.-educated foreign nationals with S&E degrees (i.e., returning to their countries of origin, working in countries other than the United States or their countries of origin).

  • Expanding immigration will dampen the market signals that would otherwise drive more U.S. students into science and engineering. Visa and immigration policies directed at increasing the number of foreign scientists and engineers in the United States may, by increasing the overall supply of scientists and engineers, depress wages, increase unemployment, and reduce career opportunities for U.S. scientists and engineers; discourage American students from pursuing S&E degrees and careers; and cloud labor market signals (e.g., wage growth, unemployment rates) to students considering pursing S&E degrees and careers.

  • U.S. students lag those of other nations in STEM knowledge; federal efforts to improve STEM education are needed. U.S. students lag foreign students in STEM knowledge, and this may result in fewer and/or less-talented U.S. scientists and engineers, lower economic growth, and reduced economic competitiveness.  Federal policies and programs can help to build a stronger K-12 STEM education system.

  • International assessments do not reflect the adequacy of U.S. student STEM knowledge. Standardized tests used to compare the STEM knowledge of U.S. K-12 students to those of other nations do not appropriately reflect the STEM knowledge of U.S. students, the adequacy of their preparation to pursue S&E degrees and occupations, or their future capabilities as scientists and engineers.

These disparate perspectives contribute to a variety of opinions on the roles the federal government should play in fostering the development of the S&E workforce, including the merits of federal policies focused on:

  • increasing the number of students pursuing S&E degrees;
  • increasing the number of foreign scientists and engineers admitted to the United States;
  • increasing the number and share of underrepresented minorities and women in science and engineering;
  • improving K-12 STEM education; and
  • improving career information and counseling for high school students.

As Congress considers approaches to bolstering U.S. competitiveness and scientific, engineering, technological, and industrial leadership, it may wish to consider these perspectives and opinions.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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