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February 9, 2016

Even the GAO Can’t Figure Out if There’s a STEM Worker Shortage

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.
  • DrGeneNelson

    The non-conclusions that this report reached are likely influenced by the economic elites that benefit from a historically unprecedented STEM glut. (There is also the conflict of interest that the government reduces the STEM salaries it pays when there is a glut.)

    It should be apparent with two parameters disclosed by the GAO report (1. The decline by 1/4 million jobs in the field between 2008-2010 and 2. Only 38% of those with a 2012 STEM bachelor’s degree were working in the field – and STEM degrees are difficult to earn!) that the GAO report writers do not want to admit the obvious. The U.S. currently faces a historically unprecedented GLUT of STEM workers! To learn more, search by title for the PDF version of “U.S. Colleges Are Both Victimizers and Victims of Mass Immigration.”

    • econdataus

      I agree that the non-conclusions of the GAO are likely influenced by the economic elites and the politicians who benefit from their campaign contributions. In any event, the majority of commentary that I’ve run across (posted at ) suggest that the so-called “skills gap” is a myth. This includes a recent editorial by Paul Krugman.

      Also, every H-1B application requires a Labor Condition Application (LCA). I just recently looked at those that are disclosed online and posted the information at . As you can see, very few are denied. Worse yet, the certified ones contain hundreds of errors that would seem to make them impossible to process correctly. I’ve written my representatives on this and related issues but have gotten little response. The fact that our politicians receive so much in campaign contributions from the tech companies pushing for more H-1Bs likely complicates the issue. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

      • DrGeneNelson

        EconDataUS: This has been a longstanding problem. The U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General (DoL OIG) issued an Audit Report on May 22, 1996 The second paragraph below is an excellent summary. I believe that corrupt Microsoft lobbyist Jack A. Abramoff and his team played a role in maintaining the status quo that the DoL OIG decried in 1996.

        Report Title: The Department of Labor’s Foreign Labor Certification Programs: The System is Broken and Needs to be Fixed
        Report Number: 06-96-002-03-321

        The (DoL) OIG audited the Department’s role in the employment-based, permanent labor certification (PLC) and the temporary H-1B Labor Condition Application (LCA) immigration programs. Under these two programs, ETA has responsibility for certifying certain employers’ PLC applications and LCAs before aliens can obtain visas to legally work in the U.S. Our audit objective was to determine whether ETA policies and procedures adequately protected U.S. workers’ jobs in accordance with the Immigration Act, as amended.

        In our opinion, while ETA is doing all it can within its authority, the PLC and LCA programs do not protect U.S. workers’ jobs or wages and, therefore, neither program meets its legislative intent. DOL’s role amounts to little more than a paper shuffle for the PLC program and a “rubber stamping” for LCA program applications. As a result, annual expenditures of approximately $50 million for DOL’s foreign labor certification programs do little to “add value” to the process of protecting American jobs and wages.

        The 45-page full report is at:

        • econdataus

          “DOL’s role amounts to little more than a paper shuffle for the PLC program and a “rubber stamping” for LCA program applications.” That’s a surprisingly blunt assessment! It appears that such a blunt assessment is not possible today, at least not from the GAO.

          From the types of errors that I saw in the data, I likewise got the impression that the LCA program was little more than “rubber stamping”. As can be seen at , all requests for over 1000 positions were denied but there were many requests for just under 1000 positions that were certified. That suggests that there is a known cutoff at 1000. Then, there were a number of certified applications that did not appear to contain enough information to determine the workplace location, a critical piece of information for evaluating the requests. Then, I noticed that nearly every application that proposed to pay a salary significantly below the prevailing wage was denied. However, many that proposed to pay a salary many multiples the prevailing wage, suggesting bad salary data, were certified. For example, a request to pay a product consultant $11.4 million a year and a staff dentist $15.5 million a year were certified! It appears that someone is just applying a set of filters to the data and just “rubber-stamping” everything else.

          The information on the PLC was helpful as I didn’t know much about it. Do you know if the workplace information in the LCA data is used to determine if the application is approved, depending on whether there is a supposed shortage of workers in that area? I’m still surprised that nearly half of the software developers in Silicon Valley are non-citizens (see ). I can’t believe that someone thinks that there is that much of a shortage of qualified American workers willing to work in the valley. Anyhow, thanks again for the info.

    • DrGeneNelson

      Since the DoL now requires online submission of LCAs via ETA9035E – I believe that most of the approval process is now automated. I believe it is significant that EconDataUS is uncovering approved LCAs lacking information that is required by statute.
      Here is the instruction page for e-Filing, created on October 26, 2009:

      • econdataus

        Thanks. Please pass the errors at on to anyone who could help. I did send the information to my representatives and have heard nothing back from the two Senators. My Representative did reply, saying that he’s “supported legislation to increase the cap on H-1B visas while making reforms to the program”. Hence, I’m not hoping for a lot though he did write the following:

        “I am troubled by reports that some companies may not be adhering to the spirit or the requirements of the H-1B visa program. Better accounting of these visas and their impact on U.S. workers can help us more fully understand of the situation and address any problems identified. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that current tracking mechanisms are inadequate. In fact, GAO was unable to document the impact of H-1B workers on employment conditions and unemployment rates for American workers due to the lack of data collected by the Department of Homeland Security. You can be sure that I will continue working with my colleagues to ensure that our government does a better job of collecting the information we need to ensure that the H-1B visa program operates the way it is intended to work and is not abused by unscrupulous employers.”

        I might just be a form letter but at least they sent the right one this time!

  • RMGH

    There is no STEM shortage, there hasn’t BEEN a STEM shortage in about 30 years. All of this has been a canard to justify more guest workers. The truth is that in most fields there is a MASSIVE GLUT.

    Salaries are flat to falling
    Unemployment or underemployment within these fields is high (you can’t count that job you landed at Starbucks).
    People over 50 can’t find work.
    Do I really need to go further? All of this points to a GLUT.

    This madness about STEM shortages needs to stop before more kids take out loans in order to pursue STEM degrees, thinking that this is a magic bullet to their problems. In a jobs-starved nation people are likely to reach out for anything that offers a solution. But this is doing more harm than good.

    • Incredulous_one

      You are 100% correct. The push for more H1B visas is, quite simply, a ploy to keep wages depressed.

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