No evidence emerged from the workshop to indicate that there is currently a STEM workforce crisis. One participant did, however, describe how past DOD budget decreases naturally correlate with reduced demand and workforce drawdowns. This condition is, however, largely a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the DOD budget for R&D is reduced far enough, a point will inevitably be reached at which there is no unfilled demand. Particular needs, however, may not be fulfilled. One participant presented information from the Aviation Week Workforce Study 2011 pointing to mismatches between supply and demand for particular skills in the contractor base in terms of numbers of open job requisitions. Another participant presented a case study of petroleum engineering in the 2000s showing that markets will respond to demand signals for STEM jobs when such needs are not met. Some participants nonetheless made the point that whether or not there are quantitative mismatches, problems related to workforce quality can arise. Engineering skills can obsolesce given rapid changes in technology, and hence there may be need for more continuing education and training than in the past when change was slower.
Some participants presented data showing that, for the STEM pipeline, there has been a modest increase in bachelor’s degrees earned in engineering and the physical sciences. However, blacks and Hispanics earn natural science and engineering degrees in percentages well below their population shares, which are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population.
Participants also presented data on the numbers of persons remaining in STEM fields after graduation—the retention rates—which have been increasing in recent years, although the numbers graduating with degrees in engineering have been flat, at 72,000, for the past 6 years. One participant expressed the view that although government can intervene to stimulate supply, the creation of an oversupply of engineers is not a desirable outcome and may be more detrimental than lags arising from the demand-driven supply.
One participant presented results of his study on another portion of the STEM supply: the doctoral degrees awarded to temporary-visa holders. At the doctoral level, the so-called stay rates of such graduates up to 2007 have not been in historical decline. On the one hand, China, India, and other countries in particular have a high percentage of PhDs staying in the United States, notwithstanding the very high growth rates in their home economies. On the other hand, there is substantial anecdotal observation of particularly highly qualified individuals returning to their home countries.
Workshop participants from academia stated the view that there is sufficient capacity to educate the STEM workforce, but there are aspects that could be improved with DOD assistance. In general, universities are best able to respond to a stable signal in DOD funding without year-to-year fluctuation; providing $100 million evenly over 10 years for example is preferable to a short burst of very high funding. Major research universities are the primary recipients of DOD basic research (6.1) funding. Several participants stressed that other, non-R-1 universities and colleges4 are an important component of education for the STEM workforce. A large percentage of science and technology is based at all levels of postsecondary education: approximately 57 percent of those who ultimately pursue doctorates will have obtained their undergraduate degrees at institutions other than major research universities. Programs that focus solely on major research universities would miss these important elements of the STEM workforce pipeline. One participant suggested that engaging undergraduates in research would be an effective way to reduce attrition in the STEM pipeline. The same participant further expressed the view that the quality of U.S. education in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12), particularly in mathematics and science, does not lend itself to major increases in the number of highly qualified STEM workers, and that this factor is exacerbated by the perceived unattractiveness of many STEM careers as seen by young people.
4That is, classified as “Research Universities I” by the Carnegie Foundation. The classification underwent a major update in 2005 such that RU/VH is the equivalent of R-1. A.C. McCormack and C. Zhao. 2005. “Rethinking and Reframing the Carnegie Classification.” Change 37(5):50-57.