Saturday, March 7, 2015

Shortage of Engineers is a Hoax? You Don't Say.

The only real disagreement is whether supply [of STEM* workers] is two or three times larger than the demand. -USA Today

Between mostly poor pay, variable benefits, instability (six layoffs in seven years) and lack of opportunities in engineering, and then living in a land of milk and honey in public accounting--where the Great Recession barely got my attention--I knew the "shortage of engineers" was a load of horse shit. Or as someone else described it, STEM was a lottery with a very expensive ticket.

Perhaps I'm not alone here: a lot of low-carbers are scientific, analytical people who might have had trouble finding work in their fields.  Heaven knows I've had plenty of clues that there was a glut of engineers: taking a year to find an engineering job out of college, making less than the cashiers at King Soopers when I was temping as a mechanical engineer at Bechtel, and seeing few advertisements for positions. Changing industries and learning more about business gave me more insight: companies that really do need to hire employees don't run an ad in the paper for a year, rejecting all comers, or run an ad with a mile-long list of obscure qualifications and wait while the work apparently piles up. (They might do the latter, my brother said, if they've already hired someone and they're running the ad for EEOC purposes. The former, I think, might be only for poaching employees from competitors.) Companies try to keep their employees around with good pay, benefits and other perks when they're hard to replace. And as we all saw during the tech boom and lately in petroleum engineering, employers raise wages when the workers they need are in short supply.

Still, it was disheartening to constantly hear about engineering degrees being a ticket to wealth and guaranteed employment, and how all those unemployed liberal arts majors should have majored in engineering. Finally, though, I have proof that there's a glut. Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent by Michael S. Teitelbaum looks at the evidence and finds no indication there's a shortage of engineers or other STEM workers except, perhaps, in a few sub-fields. He describes scaremongering and lobbying by industry, academia and immigration lawyers to convince lawmakers and the public that the US was, and is, short of STEM workers--the solutions being to get more students to earn degrees in those fields and bring in foreign workers. One effect was, of course, to flood the market with STEM labor, putting downward pressure on wages and opportunities. Tragically, some of the lobbying focused on preventing students here on visas from being tracked with an up-to-date computer system. Some students took advantage of the lax student visa system, dropping out of school, training with terrorists and attacking America on 9/11.

But it was the US government, Teitelbaum says, that was the first to start crowing about a lack of scientists and engineers generations ago. Government sets an agenda based on little or no evidence and industry flacks make up bullshit to help their businesses and get government support. Sound familiar? Others, too, are calling out the STEM shortage as a hoax. Professors from Howard and Rutgers Universities have, like Teitelbaum, looked at the data and say there's no evidence of a shortage. IEEE looked at hundreds of articles, reports and white papers and concluded--with a dramatic visual--there are 227,000 STEM vacancies in the US, and 11.4 million STEM degree holders who work outside of STEM. And Mark Zuckerberg, who's been lobbying for inexpensive foreign workers, got served by Sen. Jeff Sessions. Sessions now heads the immigration subcommittee in Congress.

Even though I'm not in STEM anymore, I wish well for everyone who is. In any case, maybe outing the STEM shortage as a hoax will get colleges and companies in that field to do what they're supposed to be good at: solving problems themselves.

*STEM is science, technology, engineering and math.

ETA 2/25/2016: Having just moved to a new city, I've been looking for work and received this email from an engineering firm with $3 million in revenue:

I want to make sure I am clear in understanding that you prefer an administrative role as opposed to an engineer as we have openings for both in our Indianapolis office. The reason being, is that the engineer is paid more towards the rate you are seeking while the project admin is a support person, who’s [sic] rate ranges between $18-20/hr.  (Emphasis added)

"The rate [I'm] seeking" is about what I was making doing secretarial work, which is apparently what the engineers there make. Unless it's just for a temp job, $18 an hour doesn't get me out of bed.


FredT said...

Also note the STEM workers can often work remotely, aka, from the third world. That is the real problem for engineers.

Lori Miller said...

It's a problem for anyone who works just on a computer--potentially. Some employers dislike it. But if industry, academia and special interest groups would quit saying there's a shortage of STEM workers, it would be a problem for a lot fewer people: more people would get out of STEM or not go into it in the first place.

I do think the overall glut of people in the field is a problem. Even before people were working remotely much (back in the 90s and early 2000s), work was tough to find and there was a lot of churning of employees. I know someone who trained in forensic science--which cannot be done remotely--who's paying off a boatload of student loans on a bus driver's wage and hating it.

Lowcarb team member said...

I'm glad you finished your article with this "STEM is science, technology, engineering and math" ..... perhaps I should have realised.

For so many now working in your chosen and trained field is hard. I feel very sorry for the millions who come out of University (all over the world) and struggle to find employment.

Alas, I do not think there is an easy answer in today's economic and employment climate ..... for some any job must be welcome to help pay the bills.

All the best Jan

Lori Miller said...

I hadn't heard of STEM until recently, either.

Over the past generation, far more people were pushed into college than probably should have gone. If I'd known what poor prospects I'd face when I was a student, and that I'd be making more money at a job that didn't require any college at all, I'd have cleaned out my locker and left.

Angel said...

Thank you for writing this post. I have long felt a bit of guilt for dropping out of engineering in the late 80s, and had long assumed, thanks to the scaremongering you mentioned, that I was missing out on great career opportunities. I changed majors to psychology, which even then was a difficult career direction without a master's degree, but eventually dropped out and enlisted in the military. In 2006 after I got kicked out of the military (due to health problems that have largely been resolved by a paleo/low-carbish diet and years of rest) I got a master's degree in counseling, but I have not been able to get a job in that field. Same thing as with engineering -there was supposed to be a lot of openings in that field, but there hasn't been, at least not for people with no professional background in mental health. I have noticed that accounting is a pretty stable career path, however, I really didn't care for my accounting classes.

So I have been working a series of low wage office jobs, barely getting by, and I don't see that changing for a very long time, if ever. It's very frustrating but I don't know what else to do. I am sick of going back to school. I'm doing now what I should have done back in the day - just get a job that I can tolerate, stick with it, and hope for the best. I work in a print shop in a manufacturing plant now. It keeps me active and on my feet most of the day, and I generally have a sense of having accomplished something at the end of the day. It is most certainly the healthiest job I've ever worked. I hope I never work a sedentary office job ever again.

Lori Miller said...

I'm glad I've set at least one person's mind at ease--that was my intent.

Yes, public accounting is a good gig, partly because it has a better business model than many engineering firms. My job (audit and valuation secretary) is very sedentary and I do get tired of sitting still sometimes, but the tax secretary has to run around a lot. Large tax returns still have to be manually assembled.