Education & Training Is There a STEM Workforce Shortage?

Businesses are using their own formulas for filling their high-tech talent needs.

By Donna M. Owens May 1, 2014

Back in the 1980s, when Silicon Valley was still in its infancy, another region across the country was experiencing its own version of the technology gold rush.

In New England, as tech and financial services companies began popping up like wildflowers, the resulting wave of new jobs and economic prosperity was dubbed the "Massachusetts Miracle."

Paul L. Belliveau, SPHR, who heads Avancé Human Capital Management Advisors, was recruiting at the time for now-defunct Wang Laboratories, which once employed 33,000 workers and made billions producing office information systems.

"In one year alone, we hired about 4,000 workers. They were looking for very creative people from all walks of life—research librarians, writers," Belliveau says. "They actually put people through school. They turned businesspeople into technologists."

Today, the issue of whether there are enough qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math—collectively known as STEM—continues to percolate in the nation’s consciousness and generate debate. STEM hiring has been a hot topic among HR and business professionals on blogs, in social media posts and at industry conferences.

On one side are the people convinced that the U.S. workforce is ill-prepared to meet the high-tech demands of a 21st century global economy. On the other are those who question whether the STEM "crisis" is overblown. In reality, the severity of the STEM talent shortage lies somewhere in between.

Differing Views

Many who believe there is a shortage of STEM workers point to a widely cited survey commissioned by the Bayer Corp. in 2013. It sampled about 150 talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies nationwide, representing those in STEM and non-STEM enterprises alike.

Overall, the survey found that more new STEM jobs are being created than non-STEM jobs. But what really made headlines was the finding that only half (50 percent) of those polled reported being able to find qualified people with four-year STEM degrees in a timely manner.

The numbers were comparable (about 55 percent) for those with two-year STEM degrees. Meanwhile, only 16 percent or less of the participating Fortune 1000 companies said their recruiters saw adequate numbers of qualified two- and four-year STEM degree job candidates who were black, Hispanic or Native American.

Deeming unfilled positions bad for business, the recruiters from both STEM and non-STEM companies noted that unfilled jobs lead to lower productivity, limited business growth and lower revenue.

"For this particular debate, we believe the jury is no longer out," said Jerry MacCleary, Bayer’s president of material science, when the survey was released. "As professionals responsible for scouting and hiring talent, the recruiters’ firsthand knowledge is an excellent barometer of the STEM workforce realities that companies in a range of industries are facing today."

Yet at least two other recent sources take an opposing viewpoint.

One comes from a report from, an employment website founded in 2011 that leverages data related to science and engineering to connect job seekers with openings.

Immigration Options for Employers

By Justin Storch and Rebecca Peters

Many employers hire highly educated foreign nationals to work alongside U.S. employees in the STEM fields. For recent graduates of U.S. colleges and universities, the U.S. immigration system allows eligible STEM graduates to maintain their visa status for an extended period to work for employers in the U.S.

Optional Practical Training
For F-1 students, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows certain students and recent graduates to receive practical training in their field for up to one year by working for an employer in the U.S. This is called Optional Practical Training (OPT). With an extension, certain STEM graduates can qualify for up to 29 months.
Extensions are available only for the majors that appear in the STEM Designated Degree Programs List. Employers should not make assumptions about what fields are eligible. For instance, even though accounting is a mathematics-based field, it is not on the list and, therefore, is not eligible for STEM OPT extensions.

STEM and Immigration Reform
Currently, no green cards or temporary visas are set aside specifically for STEM occupations in the United States. However, pending legislation before Congress may benefit pockets of U.S.-educated STEM talent by providing:
• New and faster routes to green cards.
• A reallocation of existing green cards.
• Exemption from labor certification.
• Modifications to the U.S. H-1B advanced degree cap to include only U.S. STEM advanced degrees.
If final legislation moves forward, employers will need to watch which occupations might be included in the definition of STEM. For instance, will any that currently qualify for STEM OPT be excluded? Will any that don’t be added?

More Information
For more information on the intersection of STEM and immigration, please contact the Council for Global Immigration, a SHRM affiliate, at (703) 548-3440 or visit
Justin Storch is manager of agency liaison, and Rebecca Peters is director and counsel for legislative affairs, for the Council for Global Immigration, a SHRM affiliate.

Steve Goodman,’s CEO, has gone on record as saying there are more than enough U.S. candidates for high-skilled computer programmer jobs.

His assertion is supported by a 2013 paper by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank based in the nation’s capital, that found "more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations." The paper’s three authors—economists and academicians—also noted that only one of every two college graduates with a STEM degree is hired into a STEM job each year; that IT workers earn the same today as they did in the late 1990s; and that high-skilled guest workers may be filling as many as half of all new IT jobs each year at wages that aren’t competitive with expected earnings for the best and brightest domestic students.

"Our examination shows that the STEM shortage in the United States is largely overblown," said co-author Hal Salzman, a professor in the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, at the time of publication.

Applying Solutions

So who’s right? Is there a shortage or not? Kathy Herndon, GPHR, director of HR information systems at Kimball International Inc., in Jasper, Ind., which manufactures office and hospitality furniture and electronic components, believes the answer hinges on how employers define the term.

"There may be a shortage of formally educated STEM workers, but there are a multitude of STEM workers with the appropriate experience and skills that are simply not recognized because they do not have four-year degrees," says Herndon, whose organization has nearly 7,000 employees. Her expertise includes systems and process design, project and vendor relationship management, and employee data privacy initiatives.

"When evaluating skill sets, work experience is still viewed as secondary to a formal four-year education, even though real work experience is often more valuable in STEM," Herndon says.

The cost of tuition for four-year degrees prevents many talented workers from pursuing them, she adds. "Many pursue two-year degrees with the hope that future employers will offer to pay for the tuition required to complete a bachelor’s degree," Herndon notes.

Depending on the job function, she adds, Kimball may provide tuition reimbursement for college-level courses and offer college internships to train potential talent.

Herndon says her organization views on-the-job training and certificate programs as positive methods for creating larger technical talent pools. "Certifications are encouraged by our leadership," she notes. "They’re a good validation of technical expertise and also reflect the discipline required to complete certification programs."

She says the real question HR should ask is, "Does the position really require a four-year degree?"

"Quite often, we quickly assign that minimum qualification to positions when in reality an individual with years of STEM experience may be just as or even more qualified than a recent four-year graduate," Herndon says. "There is great potential in employees who have not had the privilege of attending college or completing a college education."

Janet Wittes, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained statistician who has built a thriving career in government, academia and industry, says trying to find STEM applicants with the right mix of skills can be a challenge.

"Trying to find people who think quantitatively, who have a background in statistics, and who have very good written and oral English skills is hard," Wittes says. "What we want is that combination."

Wittes, founder and president of Statistics Collaborative Inc., in Washington, D.C., which employs 40 people, says she has never encountered a STEM applicant without at least a four-year college degree.

"About half of our employees are statisticians with a master’s or a Ph.D.," she notes. "It’s hard not to have an advanced degree in this field. In general, you really do need it."

Kevin Carrington, vice president, senior consultant and federal practice leader with The Segal Group in Washington, D.C., says he has seen a shortage of workers with the skills required for certain critical STEM jobs. "Jobs that require workers to use the sum of their acquired knowledge to solve existing real-world problems are the most impacted," he says. "We’re seeing this in both government and private markets."

Carrington, who has 30 years of HR leadership, operations and consulting experience, has past and present clients in government as well as the academic and corporate sectors.

Many organizations, he says, "didn’t think they had to take an active role in solving the problem until now" and are taking steps to build their STEM pipeline both internally and externally.

"The federal and private sectors are equally doing outreach, but it’s being done differently," Carrington says. "Most companies are doing targeted programs, mentoring and coaching with employees from within the organization.

"While federal government agencies have limited funding, many are looking holistically at this issue by going into schools and funding educational programs or labs through grants that are directly related to what they need."

Sherrie Littlejohn, an executive vice president for architecture and strategy at Wells Fargo, also believes there is a dearth of STEM graduates and workers.

"I believe the dot-com bust [in 2001] was a catalyst for this shortage where students were diverted to other fields of study," Littlejohn says.

She adds that many organizations, especially those with aging workforces, are not being aggressive enough in promoting continued growth of STEM skills by continuously bringing in new talent.

Companies that have embraced younger STEM workers and that are growing STEM talent at the secondary and college levels are positioned to reap benefits, Littlejohn adds. "Every successful organization either promotes the advancement of technology or uses it to advance its company’s purpose," she says.

Partners in Education

To help fill the STEM pipeline, experts say, more federal agencies, companies and foundations have begun to partner with elementary, middle and high schools.

"They’re trying to entice kids to study STEM," Carrington says. "They’re realizing they can’t wait to do that. They’ve got to grow those skills [in future workers] themselves."

Among the initiatives is Project 2061, a long-term project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that is supported in part by the National Science Foundation. The project’s goal is to help all Americans become literate in science, mathematics and technology by the year 2061.

To achieve that, educators, researchers and policymakers are being given tools to make critical and lasting improvements in the nation’s education system.

They range from developing K-12 curriculum materials that support student achievement in science learning to professional development workshops and online webinars for teachers.

Such outreach dovetails with efforts by the Obama administration that have brought senior officials to schools and campuses nationwide.

For instance, there’s been significant discussion about the role community colleges can play in developing STEM candidates, including the nation’s veterans.

To that end, the American Association of Community Colleges recently announced a national grant competition for MentorLinks: Advancing Technological Education, a program developed with support from theNational Science Foundation. MentorLinks is designed for community colleges seeking to improve technician education programs in the STEM fields.

In March, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and David J. Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, visited the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), to meet with school leaders and students.

The university and its president, Freeman Hrabowski, Ph.D., have garnered national recognition for programs that seek to elevate minority participation in STEM fields and for overall educational leadership in those disciplines.

The university’s track record is noteworthy: Last year, 41 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned at UMBC were in STEM fields, well above the national average of 25 percent.

Meanwhile, Morgan State University in Baltimore hosted John P. Holdren, Ph.D., director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in February. The visit was designed to spark a national conversation on historically black colleges and universities and their value in global STEM development.

"One of the smartest things we can do to keep our nation globally competitive is ensure that our science, technology, engineering and math workforce taps into America’s extraordinarily diverse talent pool," Holdren said. "Morgan State is helping to cultivate the next generation of discoverers, builders, inventors and thinkers that will keep America innovating on the cutting edge."


Innovation remains tightly associated with STEM subjects, but some advocates want to incorporate art and design into the mix and transform STEM into STEAM.

STEAM, a movement championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), has been widely adopted by institutions, corporations and individuals. Last year, a bipartisan STEAM caucus was formed on Capitol Hill with congressional members from across the country.

The overall objectives of STEAM include integrating art and design into education, influencing employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation, and fostering the potential that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.

The school is promoting the concept that art and design education teaches flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem-solving—all skills that businesses need.

For example, recent exhibitions hosted jointly by students from RISD, Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology featured a device that wirelessly communicates an individual’s heartbeat to a loved one as well as a silicone cast brain that visualizes the cognition of the person holding it.

Belliveau, who also teaches HR and management principles at Southern New Hampshire University, says companies with cultures that champion new ways of seeing the world will have an edge in the 21st century.

"There are organizations that continue to do that, such as Magnet, Yahoo and Google," he says. "They create incredible cultures and work environments. … Great people want to work for them."

CompuGirls: Building Skills In Underserved Communities

At Arizona State University, associate professor Kimberly Scott founded CompuGirls in 2007. The program offers adolescent girls from underserved communities a chance to learn advanced computational skills and social justice theories.

Scott saw a need for the program after learning that only 10 percent of middle-school girls rated the computer science profession as a “very good” choice for them, according to National Science Foundation data.

CompuGirls participants learn the latest technologies in digital media, game development and virtual worlds, along with photo editing, documentary filmmaking and more.

Scott, who was recently honored at the White House for her endeavors, says girls in the program have also used technology as a tool to address complex issues such as child abuse, indigenous language and culture loss.

Kevin Carrington, vice president, senior consultant and federal practice leader with The Segal Group in Washington, D.C., believes that such efforts are particularly critical when it comes to building diversity in the STEM arena.

“More companies are adopting schools with diverse populations in the inner city and other neighborhoods,” he says. “And some employers even give employees time off to teach classes that help make STEM real.”

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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