A new study concludes that there is no shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates in the US.


The conclusion:

Our review and analysis of the best available evidence indicates that the supply of STEM-potential and STEM-educated students has remained strong and appears to be quite responsive to standard economic signals of wage levels and unemployment rates. In the meantime, the flow of guestworkers has been substantial and targeted to one specific segment of the overall STEM labor market, namely IT occupations and industries. There are multiple routes into the IT labor force provided by high-skill immigration policy, from work permits to student visas to a range of nonimmigrant work visas, but these multiple routes of entry for high-skill guestworkers are not adequately tracked in immigration or labor force statistics. Moreover, policy analyses do not account for the wide range of visa and work permits, and thus do not account for the extent of available supply of guestworkers for the STEM workforce.

The IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s. Since that time, the IT industry appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects), and a guestworker supply that appears to be abundantly available even in times of relatively weak demand and even when wages decline or are stagnant.

Workers from countries with low wages and limited career opportunities will find the U.S. IT labor market attractive even when wages are too low and career opportunities too limited to increase the IT supply from domestic students and workers. In other words, the data suggest that current U.S. immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers appear to provide firms with access to labor that will be in plentiful supply at wages that are too low to induce a significantly increased supply from the domestic workforce.

This agrees with my experience. I was called upon to do technical interviews of new candidates back in the days of the dotcom boom, when salaries were high and programmers were scarce. We always had a ton of resumes incoming; job fairs were always packed with prospective hires, and we always managed to hire the people we needed.

I think there are 2 factors that contribute to this perception of a “tech worker shortage.” One is relatively benign, and one is not.

The benign factor can be ascribed to the disconnect between the human resources personnel who do the initial screening and the technical managers who have the open positions. Human Resources people are good at their jobs, but they don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of technology, so the initial assessment of an incoming resume tends to be done by pattern matching of skill sets. That is, the hiring manager asks for someone with x years of experience in technology y. So the HR department skips any resume without technology y on it, then culls out all the resumes with less than x years in the technology. The pile that’s left is the starting point.

Like it or not, this is the process that most companies follow. Perhaps it’s the only way to handle the situation that HR finds itself in — big piles of resumes, a few open slots, and a list of skills that aren’t fully understood. However, it tends to exclude candidates who could be a good fit for a slightly broader criteria. Say you’re hiring C++ programmers and you specify “1 year of experience with Microsoft Visual Studio 2010.” For the sake of argument, say that Bjarne Stroustroup (the guy who invented the language) happens to be looking for a job. If he hasn’t used Visual Studio 2010, the hiring manager will never see his resume.

The less benign motivation for promoting the notion of a “tech shortage” is to increase the supply of workers in order to keep wages low. The paper above indicates that this is a motivating factor.

I remember seeing a tech company boast that they only hired one percent of applicants. The same company is one of the leading complainers about a shortage of “qualified candidates”. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for such a company. They could double their candidate pool by only rejecting 98% of their applicants. Surely the difference between the top 1% and the top 2% is not so large that they’d rather leave positions unfilled and fail to grow as a company than to hire someone whose qualifications exceed those of 98% of other applicants. Such a company is like someone who fills out an online dating profile saying “I’ll only date Beyonce; none others need apply” and then complaining about loneliness.