Even the GAO Can’t Figure Out if There’s a STEM Worker Shortage
Posted at 9:11 a.m. on June 10
In the debate over whether or not there’s a shortage of STEM workers, Congress’ top watchdog office says the answer isn’t clear.
“It is difficult to know if the numbers of STEM graduates are aligned with workforce needs, in part because demand for STEM workers fluctuates,” says a Government Accountability Office report that was published last month and recently publicly released.
The GAO says estimating demand for STEM workers is a “challenge, in part because demand for STEM workers can fluctuate with economic conditions”:
For example, the number of jobs in core STEM occupations declined by about 250,000 between 2008 and 2010 (from 7.74 million jobs in 2008 to 7.49 million in 2010), though it then increased (to 7.89 million jobs in 2012). Subject matter specialists and federal officials we interviewed also noted that employer needs in STEM fields are difficult to predict because they may change with technological or market developments.
Other reasons it’s difficult to know whether there are enough STEM workers to meet demand, according to the report:
- If students are going into STEM fields because of favorable economic conditions in that field, it can take several years for them to get their degrees, meaning that supply can lag behind demand.
- Looking at people with STEM degrees might not be a good way to think about how many STEM workers are out there because “students often pursue careers in fields different from the ones they studied.” Take for example, the percent of people in 2012 with STEM bachelor’s degrees who worked in a STEM job – only 38 percent according to GAO. Sixty-two percent worked in non-STEM jobs.
“The survey data cannot tell us how many of these STEM -educated workers are in a non-STEM occupation by choice and how many would prefer to work in a STEM occupation but cannot find a position suitable to them,” the report says, but notes that they have relatively low unemployment rate, indicating that there’s generally demand for them both in STEM and non-STEM jobs.