Finally, the truth about engineering jobs

Dec. 13, 2007
Members of the U.S. House got a surprising message during a recent meeting on America’s science and engineering workforce: Everything they thought they knew about science and engineering employment was wrong.

Specifically, there is no shortage of scientists or engineers. In fact, there are “substantially more” scientists and engineers graduating in the U.S. than there are jobs. Perhaps most surprising, kids coming out of U.S. secondary schools do not lag far behind comparable students in economically competitive countries when it comes to science and math.

House members heard this from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Vice President Michael Teitelbaum. The Sloan Foundation is a nonprofit organization that studies topics in science and technology. It has no axe to grind when it comes to engineering salaries. Perhaps that’s why Teitelbaum was unable to discern any sign of a “looming shortfall” in engineers. In fact, researchers from institutions such as the Rand Corp., Harvard University, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Stanford University, have all come to this same conclusion.

Says Teitelbaum, “A labor economist would notice that engineering salaries have been flat and declining in some fields. Engineering unemployment rates are closer to the average unemployment rate than they ever have been. Those factors do not suggest a shortage.”

One might ask why, in the face of such evidence, we still hear spirited claims that there are too few engineers. “In my judgment,” says Teitelbaum, “what you are hearing is simply the expressions by interest groups and their lobbyists.” None of them represent the career interests of scientists or engineers. So the only people speaking out on engineering employment tend to be “employers and their associations, universities and their associations, funding agencies, and immigration lawyers and their associations.” All these groups have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of an engineering shortage.

But engineers don’t have the worst of it. Ph.D.s in science and biomedicine are being led down a path that is increasing their supply without a commensurate rise in demand for researchers. ”Rapid increases in Federal funding for scientific research and education will more likely than not destabilize career paths for junior scientists,” Teitelbaum says. The problem is that Federal research grants boost the number of slots for Ph.D. students and postdocs, but there are few jobs for these people once they graduate. And new initiatives aimed at boosting U.S. research will, ironically, make the problem worse.

Efforts aimed at encouraging kids to take up engineering careers and plowing more money into research grants are supposed to make the U.S. more competitive. But they put the cart before the horse. Teitelbaum points out that the best way to accomplish these goals is not to increase the supply of engineers and scientists, but to increase the demand for them.

Otherwise the most likely outcome of current efforts will be more engineers driving taxis. But they may not have much luck entering even this modest vocation because unemployed biomedical Ph.D.s will be there first.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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