Policymakers Urged to Address Concerns about U.S. Science and Technology Workforce

RIT professor authors report on workforce policy




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Amidst growing uneasiness around the United States’ ability to compete with India, China and other nations, the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology has issued a report on the state of the nation’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce and the policy implications surrounding it. The report, Policy and the STEM Workforce System, calls on policymakers to develop a healthy STEM workforce system on the whole. Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, is the report’s lead author.

The report follows nearly three years of data analysis designed to package reliable statistics on the U.S. STEM workforce. Collectively, these reports are known as the “STEM Workforce Data Project.” These data assess trends around employment; the participation of women, minorities and foreign-born individuals; salaries; degree production; and employment forecasts, among others.

Policy and the STEM Workforce System analyzes these trends and summarizes the key elements of a healthy STEM workforce system including the rewards and risks that substantially impact the attractiveness of STEM professions. For example, between 2001 and 2006, enrollments in bachelor’s programs in computer science dropped 40 percent. Increased risk for job loss in IT due to offshoring and other issues was a major factor in students shying away.

Likewise, the changing nature of employment relations can have an impact on how attractive an individual field may be. With more employers moving toward “on-demand” employment and an expectation of short employee tenure, there is less incentive to invest in continuing education. This leaves STEM professionals especially vulnerable since keeping up with the pace of technology is critical to their employability.

The report highlights the policy levers that affect the STEM workforce system, including:

  • Federal research funding

  • Scholarships

  • Government procurement

  • Subsidizing continuing education

  • Improving participation rates among women and underrepresented minorities

  • Immigration policies

  • On-ramps and re-entry into STEM careers

  • Improving labor market signals

“Changing one control variable, such as increasing degree production, will have multiple effects on the entire system, some of which may be desirable and others which may not,” Hira says. “Policymakers and analysts need to develop models to interpret how a specific policy choice affects the overall health of the system in short, medium, and long terms. Of course, this also means recognizing and reconciling the conflicting values of the interested parties.”

According to the report, employers have long lamented the limited supply of domestic STEM talent, while universities have issued stark warnings about a decreasing flow of new students. Meanwhile, although efforts have been made to encourage women and underrepresented minorities—collectively, the majority—to enter STEM fields, the report claims that more effort is needed. At the same time, many STEM workers, particularly older ones, report unemployment and underemployment.

“When employers issue dire cautions about a lack of human supply, we intuitively expect the field in question to become more attractive, with degree production, employment levels and salaries rising accordingly,” says Lisa Frehill, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. “But that hasn’t happened with many STEM occupations, so we need to start looking at where the disconnects are.”

The STEM Workforce Data Project is intended to provide an objective voice in describing the current state of the STEM workforce. Policy and the STEM Workforce System takes that information and presents the key elements that should be considered to diagnose the health of the STEM workforce system. With this information, policy makers and analysts are better positioned to launch an informed debate about effective policy measures to ensure future competitiveness.

“It is widely accepted that the STEM workforce has a disproportionate impact on America’s ability to compete in a global economy,” says Richard Ellis, author of several of the STEM Workforce Data Project reports. “If we’re going to maintain and grow competitive advantage in the United States, it’s critical that our policies reflect the full range of issues affecting STEM workers and employers.”

About the STEM Workforce Data Project: The report is a product of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded STEM Workforce Data Project. To date, the project has released eight reports and three white papers. Earlier reports examined 20 years of data on STEM employment; the participation of women, minorities, and foreign-born individuals in STEM occupations; trends in science and technology salaries; trends in STEM degree production; STEM employment forecasts; federal statistics on the STEM workforce; and changes in federal occupational classifications. The STEM Workforce Data Project draws upon the full range of statistical resources offered by U.S. federal agencies, as well as private sources of information, to identify, compile and distribute reliable statistics on STEM workers in the U.S.

Policy and the STEM Workforce System is available free of charge on the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology’s Web site, www.cpst.org, as are the earlier reports and white papers. One additional report and four more white papers will be produced in the coming months, and a national conference, Can We Compete? Trends in America’s Scientific and Technical Workforce, will be held in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 1-2.

The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, founded in 1953 as the Scientific Manpower Commission, is a nonprofit organization whose membership includes leading professional scientific societies, corporations, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and individuals concerned with the education and employment of scientists and engineers. The commission specializes in the collection, analysis and dissemination of reliable information about the human resources of the United States in the fields of science, engineering and technology. For more information, visit http://www.cpst.org.

About RIT: Rochester Institute of Technology is internationally recognized for academic leadership in computing, engineering, imaging technology, and fine and applied arts, in addition to unparalleled support services for students with hearing loss. More than 15,800 full- and part-time students are enrolled in RIT’s 340 career-oriented and professional programs, and its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For nearly two decades, U.S. News & World Report has ranked RIT among the nation’s leading comprehensive universities. The Princeton Review features RIT in its 2007 Best 361 Colleges rankings and named the university one of America’s “Most Wired Campuses.” RIT is also featured in Barron’s Best Buys in Education.