An interesting news piece at Science magazine briefly examines the state of science employment in the US.
If you read the idiot musings of the mainstream press, where stories about science are always written by people without any science background (or worse, weird liberal arts journo-degrees like science & journalism or history of science custom made for a variety of sissies and intellectual weaklings), you have read, many times, that we suffer a science shortage. Or will. Soon. (Sadly, the link is to my old alma mater where they apparently patronize the desire to be ‘into’ science without actually having to do anything that would dangerously expose you to the real thing. Kind of like the George Plimpton Paper Lion approach to pro football — only more pathetic and personally insulting.)
Scientists are like vitamins — that’s the gist of what you read from the good boys. We are always in danger of suffering a deficiency and can’t get enough of them. Except for the Republican Party. The GOP has had enough of scientists. Reality doesn’t adhere to either view.
The author of the brief at Science examines some of the conclusions from two studies — one arguing that there’s, indeed, a shortage of science workers, the other arguing there’s a glut.
The conclusion reached by the writer is that both have some truth to the them but the one arguing that there’s a glut is more true.
And I agree. When DD left Lehigh University there was a surplus of Ph.D scientists in the US. And the people I knew faced it.
Cutting to the interesting parts, we read (excerpted):
The report from FAIR argues that scientists are forced out of STEM fields because there aren’t enough jobs. “There is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States,” the authors write. “The glut of science and engineering [S&E] degree holders in the United States has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields.”
[Keep in mind STEM is acronym jargon for "science and engineering majors." It didn't exist when I earned a Ph.D. at a science and engineering school. It was invented by education officials and
other nuisances opposed to clear language that can't be used as a professional advancement.]
While the United States seems to be producing enough STEM workers to fill traditional STEM jobs, the Georgetown authors write, the migration of people with STEM-related competencies into non-STEM occupations leads to STEM-worker shortages. “Even when the numbers indicate that we are producing enough STEM graduates for STEM occupations, we do face STEM scarcity in some occupations because STEM-capable workers divert from STEM into non-STEM occupations.”
“The perceptions about a lack of skilled workers are pervasive,” Cappelli writes. “But the problem is an illusion.” Employers perceive a worker shortage, he writes, because they “want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.” Employers “need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice,” he writes. “Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore.”
A second reason for the perception of a shortage, Cappelli says, boils “down to the fact that employers can’t get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That’s an affordability problem, not a skills shortage. We can buy all we want at the prevailing prices.”
If companies would stop seeking exact skill matches and seek the help they need among the many workers currently available — including, I would argue, the nation’s 100,000 or so science postdocs — they would “vastly expand the supply of talent” available, “making it both cheaper and easier to fill jobs.” This is a case where “company self-interest and societal interest just happen to collide.”
From personal experience, I agree.
Postdoctoral positions paid very poorly in the mid-Eighties. I’m assuming they still do, in spades. The work was hard and, unless you were fortunate, generally sucked. Everyone (and I do mean everyone from technicians to grad students to post docs) eventually left the lab I was in at the Penn State School of Medicine in Hershey because the work was so unrewarding and dead-end.
You could hang around in them until something opened up or you were deemed experienced or connected enough for a position in the private sector. Or you could try for great publishing and grant proposal acquisition and a stab at a university position, much harder to land.
Both tracks revealed gluts of highly trained people, most of whom wouldn’t get the jobs they applied for.
This was made worse by the bottom line practice, adopted nationwide at universities, of using Ph.D’s as cheap no-hope-of-tenure-track labor for the teaching of undergraduate and low-level graduate courses, all in order to free the older tenured professorial class from pedagogy while in the pursuit of more illustrious full-time research.
And in terms of corporate America, it has always been a case of unchangeable but unrealistic desires on the part of the employer: the requirements in personnel departments for “exact skills” matches and people who require no “on-ramp” time.
Yeah, as it turns out, corporate America does hate you. Always has.
Extra points to the story for rubbishing the idea that perhaps many scientists leave the field, not finding jobs because they are socially distasteful. We’re talking about the notion among many run of the mill idiots that science attracts a disproportionate number of physically crippled smelly mentally ill four-eyes types incapable of being near someone without farting, stuttering and acting like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.
“[Anyone] who has spent time around aspiring scientists will find the suggestion that they’re unemployable ludicrous; socially inept scientists do exist, but most are earnest, personable, and very smart,” writes Jim Austin for Science.