NEW YORK (MainStreet) — By now it's common knowledge that America suffers from a lack of qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We hear it so often from guidance counselors, politicians and critics of "squishy" liberal arts programs that our national shortage seems self evident. As "lazy Millennials" abandon math for courses like philosophy, the country slips further behind the rest of the world in the critical fields that put us on the moon.

A recent study from the Brookings Institute has renewed this debate. In his study "Still Searching: Job Vacancies and STEM Skills," Brookings researcher Jonathan Rothwell writes that STEM jobs take more than twice as long to fill as non-STEM vacancies, indicators which "signal that STEM workers are in short supply in the labor market, relative to demand."

"There's a shortage of STEM workers," Rothwell said in an interview, "And it's at least as severe now as it was before the recession."

 

Rothwell has data on college graduates based on field of study from 2009 to 2012, and he says graduates with a computer science degree or an engineering degree experienced the fastest growth in salary and hiring and fields like law experienced the fastest decline.

This is the common knowledge that feels intuitively right. It may, however, be absolutely wrong. The fact is, rhetoric aside, there's very little actual evidence of our national scientific crisis.

Of course dissecting an entire labor market is too ambitious a project for just one article, but a few major indicators can still paint a fairly clear picture. There are three major issues to evaluate a labor market: wage changes, the graduation to job opening ratio and unemployment.

In a tight labor market (one with more jobs than workers) pay will increase as employers compete for scarce talent, job openings will outnumber entrants into the field and layoffs will stay relatively rare. (Somewhat paradoxically, resignations will actually increase as empowered employees leave jobs they dislike.) A STEM shortage in America, therefore, should lead to increasingly highly paid engineers who get jobs quickly and rarely lose them.

"It's simply Econ 101," wrote Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "If there's high demand, one would expect the price - wages - to increase. Absent increases in wages, [it's] hard to see that there's much urgent demand."

There's no evidence that wages have gone up for STEM workers in response to any kind of shortage. Although the issue has become fundamentally distorted by a widespread belief that that industry pays disproportionately well (itself questionable, as the advantage graduates enjoy falls off relatively early in their careers, high wages only indicate highly valued skills. Increasing wages indicate rare skills.

Companies compete for scarce labor the same way they do over any other resource, by trying to outbid each other. But this hasn't been the case.

"[F]rom 2000 to 2011, the average hourly wage for workers possessing at least a bachelor's degree in computer and math occupations rose less than half a percent per year," according to research from the Economic Policy Institute.

"The first response is, well, if you really have all these vacancies, why don't they raise wages? If you assume for the moment that they really do have trouble finding people, why aren't they raising wages?" Salzman said. "Wages are the same [as they have been] for the last number of years. Maybe they've gone up a little but over the past year, but essentially wages are the same as they were in the mid-90's."

Wages are not going up in the STEM industries, probably in part because America vastly overproduces STEM graduates. By 2020, America is expected to produce 2.5 million jobs in STEM fields, which seems like a lot until you compare it to the 3.9 million students who will graduate with relevant degrees by then. The question isn't about how to get more people to study engineering, it's what to do about finding a job for all the extras. This issue approaches critical for Ph.D.'s in the hard sciences, who even in 2011 found themselves approaching 35% unemployment.

Maybe we do have a STEM crisis after all.

Unemployment statistics repeat this story over and over. A tight labor market would snatch up pretty much every qualified candidate looking for work and employers, knowing they have to compete for picky candidates, would only reluctantly let anyone go. Yet what do the unemployment statistics look like for STEM professionals? Computer programmers: 4.5%. Computer support specialists: 6.6%. Chemists and materials scientists: 5.5%.

The unemployment rate for bachelor's degrees nationwide: 3.3%.

Far from a shortage of STEM workers driving up competition and demand, the field sees the same stagnating wages, stubborn unemployment and disproportionate ratio of graduates to openings as most other professions nationwide. Even more creative efforts to find evidence of a STEM shortage generally fail according to Salzman.

"For example, if your company couldn't find the people it needed, how would your company respond?" He asked. "Either you would have to produce less, you'd have people work harder, you'd have more overtime, or you'd substitute... You'd have to have some strategy to respond if you wanted to keep doing what you're doing and couldn't find the people."

When Burt Barnow of George Washington University looked for systemic overtime, production shortages or any similar changes to the STEM marketplace, "he couldn't find that [companies] were doing any of these things," according to Salzman.

So why do researchers like at Brookings find evidence that it's taking so long for employers to find qualified workers? According Rothwell, who argues that inaccurately measured wages in fact have increased for STEM workers, the answer is intuitive: it takes longer to hire STEM workers, because they're harder to find.

According to Salzman, it's a combination of duplicate job postings and hunting for the purple squirrel.

"What happens in a tight labor market," he said, "is you figure you can't find a perfect person, so you hire a good person and train him. But in a slack labor market, you figure, 'Gee, the perfect person must be out there.' There is this dynamic in a recession where people will actually take longer to search and take longer to hire people as a part of this paradoxical result."

Employers may sit on an opening longer waiting for the perfect candidate, their purple squirrel.

It is also important to note, as Vox's Danielle Kurtzleben did, that Rothwell also changed the terms of the debate in his recent study. STEM as a category refers to a specific (if far flung) set of industries. In the new research, however, Rothwell expanded that definition to include any profession that uses a technical skill, such as certain managers, salesmen and food workers (three of the longest running vacancies). It's the analytical equivalent of putting your thumb on the scale. By including not only engineers and computer programmers but also lawyers who need to know the SQL programming language, Brookings changed the terms of the discussion. This, as much as anything else, may help explain the results.

None of this is to say that STEM is not a good field for undergraduates looking to start their career. But the long running myth of a national shortage of qualified scientists and engineers appears to be just that, a myth and nothing more. In fact, we have more than enough.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.