Point-Counterpoint: Status of U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce

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Publication date: 
28 July 2004

A recurring theme in S&T policy discussions has been the status of the scientific and engineering workforce in America. There has been and continues to be concern about whether or not the United States is training enough scientists and engineers for the future economy.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and five other engineering societies, in conjunction with the Congressional Research and Development Caucus, sponsored a well-attended briefing on July 15 featuring three speakers with a range of views on whether the U.S. is training a large enough S&T workforce for the future. Opening the briefing were caucus co-chairs Judy Biggert (R-IL) and Rush Holt (D-NJ). This caucus has 33 members representing the full spectrum of political ideology. The briefing was the latest in a series of caucus events on S&T topics such as the hydrogen economy, defense S&T, and advanced health technologies. Congressional caucuses give Members of Congress who may not sit on a relevant committee the opportunity to be active in an issue area. Caucuses also highlight the importance of a particular issue. Further information on this caucus is at www.researchcaucus.org

Biggert, Holt and Michael Reischman of ASME set the stage for the speakers, with Reischman neatly summarizing the issue by asking if there is "a real gap or not?" Biggert, the chair of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy, spoke of the continuing concern there has been about the replacement of retiring members of the current S&T workforce. Also of concern are the many foreign-born S&T graduates of U.S. institutions who, while once remaining in America, are now returning home. The future S&T workforce question is an important one, she said, with "everything on the line," including our nation's economy, living standard, and security.

Holt's remarks seconded Biggert's comments. He explained that the international ranking of the United States with citizens 18-26 years old educated in S&T fields has dropped considerably in the last 25 years. Decisions now being made by middle grade students will have important ramifications on the future S&T workforce, he said. This is not a clearly defined issue, Holt added, alluding to a recent American Institute of Physics review of a National Science Board statement (see http://www.aps.org/apsnews/0704/070413.cfm .)

Michael P. Crosby is the Executive Officer for the National Science Board. The board issued a statement warning that "the nation's economic welfare and security are at stake" because of the declining number of Americans who are being trained to become scientists and engineers, while the number of jobs requiring such training grows (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/087.html.) Crosby used a series of visuals to illustrate why the board drew this conclusion, citing "concern over the long term" about global competition, U.S. reliance on foreign researchers, impending S&T workforce retirements, and the lack of bachelor degree candidates in the sciences. Regarding U.S. dependence on foreign researchers, Cosby stated it is "not going to serve our nation well" to depend on them, and that the United States must "grow our own." A major obstacle to increasing the number of science and engineering graduates are the very high opportunity costs in obtaining an advanced degree. Crosby closed by saying that "the board concludes there is no immediate crisis . . . [but] the long term trends are disturbing."

Presenting a different view was Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Teitelbaum began by saying that the claim about an impending S&T workforce shortage has been made for almost two decades, noting the NSF's previous prominent role in advancing this position. Asking if the current pronouncement is "deja vu, all over again," he characterized the shortfall claims as lacking analytical rigor. Teitelbaum contends that overall S&E labor markets are "slack," science "career prospects deteriorating," and engineering careers "unstable." "If anything, data points to surpluses," he said. "No one can forecast the S&E scene in 2012," he exclaimed. Further attention should be given to not only supply, but also to demand for these positions. Teitelbaum also described the high opportunity costs involved in establishing a science or engineering career, giving as an example the required 9-12 year post-baccalaureate education /apprenticeship process for bioscientists.

The third speaker was John A. Brighton, Assistant Director for Engineering at the NSF. Brighton urged that science and engineering be viewed as distinct disciplines (rather than lumping them together as is customary), saying that they are as distinct as railroads and highways are as forms of transportation. Brighton explained that "engineering enrollments are unstable" and difficult to predict. He advocated that future engineers be educated more broadly, and called for engineering schools to rethink their programs. Specialization in one engineering field, he said, makes an individual less marketable in non-academic positions. Highlighting one troublesome problem, Brighton called for more research to determine why students switch out of engineering majors.

The Congressional Research Caucus has posted the materials presented at the briefing at the following site: http://www.researchcaucus.org/schedule/04July15/default.asp