A short and long-term solution to America's STEM crisis

Today, jobs in STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, go unfilled for lack of qualified workers, even in the current economy. A key reason is American students are choosing fields other than STEM. In 2008, more than three times as many high school students took the art history advanced placement test as did the computer science test. In addition, from 2000 to 2007 non-STEM bachelor’s degrees grew 50 percent faster than STEM bachelor’s degrees. Yet, the nation’s STEM workforce has grown more than 50 percent faster than the number of STEM degree recipients. 

Even more disconcerting, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states the U.S. economy is expected to add at least 1.2 million computing jobs from 2010-2020. At the current pace, U.S. universities won’t produce even half the number of U.S. computer science graduates needed to fill those positions. The gap is made up by foreign-born workers who come to the U.S., some of them getting STEM degrees and staying on with a green card, and some on H-1B visas, for those with a special skill.

But we may not be able to rely on high-skill foreign STEM talent for too much longer. Anna Lee Saxenian of the University of California, Berkeley has shown that as Taiwan’s economy and universities developed, Taiwanese STEM students getting degrees in the United States were much more likely to return home to Taiwan. As nations like India and China go through the same development process, it is likely that fewer of their top students will come to the United States for STEM degrees or employment. The Chinese government is certainly aware of this and, through its “Thousand Talents” program is making a major push to develop new research universities and to accommodate the demand for millions of new scientists and engineers by high-tech companies in China.

The U.S. needs a “Thousand Talents” program of its own if we hope to keep up with our global competitors. While it’s become fashionable among some on the left to bash the H-1B program as favoring foreign workers over unemployed Americans, there is a global race for innovation advantage and the talent that drives it, and the United States is losing. The ITIF report, The Atlantic Century II, benchmarked 44 nations and regions on 16 core indicators of innovation-based capacity. When assessing the rate of improvement on these 16 indicators from 2000–2009, the United States ranked second to last, ahead of only Italy. In other words, 42 nations or regions made faster progress than the United States did in bolstering their innovation competitiveness.

One of the main reasons we are losing this innovation race is due to the significant mismatch in the skills U.S. employers seek and those that many unemployed U.S. workers have to offer. To fix this, America needs a short- and long-term strategy. In the short-term we need to liberalize high-skill immigration policies, making it easier for the best and brightest STEM workers to come and stay in America. For the long-term we need to reform high school and college education to remedy the chronic shortage of STEM graduates.

This is exactly the thinking behind a new bipartisan measure in the Senate, the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, (known as “I-Squared”), which has done something few other initiatives have done in Washington: unite Democrats and Republicans to work for a common goal. Among other things, the bill creates a dedicated funding stream to help strengthen the U.S. STEM education pipeline. Businesses that hire workers on H-1B visas will pay a fee to the Promoting American Ingenuity Account, whose funds will be used to train teachers and expand the availability of STEM funding for students. The increased funding will help increase not only the number, but the diversity of workers trained in high-skill fields. Today, African-Americans and Latinos make up 28 percent of the population, but only 7 percent of the STEM workforce.

America must focus on regaining the lead in the race for global innovation advantage, which will spur the U.S. economy and create millions of good jobs. One key ingredient in that quest is to expand STEM talent. The I-Squared Act is an important step in the right direction.

Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

More in Defense

Bill would give vets more access to long-term care facilities

Read more »