When Is a S&E Workforce Shortage Not a Shortage?

In case you haven't noticed, the U.S. lacks a national policy on the production of science and engineering (S&E) talent. Moreover, as the various S&E constituencies--disciplinary societies, government agencies, industry groups, and general scientific societies--develop training plans and programs of their own, they tend to focus on narrowly defined interests. Reversing this trend and beginning to establish a national perspective on the scientific workforce were the organizing principals of the Pan-Organizational Summit on the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce.

The summit, which was organized by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) of the National Academies of Science and held in Washington, D.C., 11 to 12 November 2002, included representatives from government agencies, disciplinary societies, and several education and science organizations who presented a litany of policy prescriptions and recommendations on the educational and societal forces that affect the experiences and expectations of the nation's future scientists and engineers. The limited discussion following the presentations demonstrated both common concerns and some competing ideas about the nature of the challenges that lie ahead.

Mary Anne Fox, chancellor of North Carolina State University and co-chair of GUIRR, closed the meeting by listing points of agreement and disagreement in the presented organizational positions and by offering preliminary recommendations for future action.

The recommendations, which will be formally announced by GUIRR in due course, will sound familiar to anyone who has been keeping track of S&E workforce issues for the past couple of decades. For example, despite massive investments in pre- and in-service teacher training and curriculum materials development, the roundtable assembly recommended more rigorous and attractive science and math training for high school students and their teachers.

But criticism did not stop in high school. Another recommendation called for reform of undergraduate science and engineering curricula--what is taught and how it is taught--arguing that too many university teachers and professors are ill equipped to present science and engineering material in an interesting and engaging manner for a wider variety of students. For Frank Gilmore, president of Sigma Xi, this agenda item ought to be a major responsibility of the scientific community. Not only does that community have the responsibility for quality teaching, he said, but also to recognize the contributions of those doing the teaching for their importance to science. The roundtable did not attempt to address what should be taught, but it was clear from the questions and discussion that much debate would be required to achieve consensus on the tools and skills required of the new workforce.

One skill that workshop participants agreed that future S&E workers will absolutely need to demonstrate is agility. The preliminary recommendations speak of "interconnecting career pathways and educational resources that allow potential S&E students, as well as existing S&E workers, to achieve exceptional agility in their field." The recommendations seek federal support by redirecting H-1B visa fees toward life-long learning activities to retrain underemployed, but highly skilled, S&E workers already in the workforce.

Several organizations highlighted their efforts to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to pursue S&E studies and careers. Suggested activities included a cornucopia of ideas--more (and better) mentoring, financial aid in the form of scholarships and loan forgiveness--that are all too familiar. One new twist came in comments regarding the growing numbers of foreign scientists and engineers studying and working in the U.S., which some speakers felt complicates efforts to address domestic workforce diversity. Jan Rinehart, president of Women in Engineering Progams and Advocates Network (WEPAN), suggested that current and previous workforce diversity initiatives have had minimal impact because critical cultural change--a true and fundamental commitment to diversity--has still not taken place in academia or industry. Rinehart believes that it might be necessary to more directly incorporate the diversity agenda into research grant proposals, as is required by the " broader impacts" criteria adopted by the National Science Foundation.

Two presenters questioned the prevailing notion that shortages of S&E workers exist now and might grow in coming years. Michael Teitelbaum, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, offered An Unconventional Portrait, in which, he said, "a variety of forces have conspired--with no one intending this outcome--to a relative deterioration of [S&E] careers when compared with those available in medicine, law, and business." For Teitelbaum, the issue has increasingly become one in which science and engineering careers are less attractive as the "opportunity costs" of acquiring the necessary training continue to go up.

For a Deeper Look

Jim Austin, editor of Next Wave's Career Development Center, has been thinking about the abundant talk of shortages in the S&E workforce. In a companion essay, he explores the implications of the arguments advanced by Teitelbaum and Butz, asking what it will take to create the demand necessary to employ the increasing numbers of young scientists that are already stuck in the postdoctoral holding pattern.

William Butz, of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at RAND, also delivered a paper questioning whether the U.S. is indeed experiencing (or should be preparing for) a shortage of S&E workers. In a move that echoed conversations between many doctoral advisors and their graduate students, Butz urged participants to define more clearly the problems. It follows, he said, that each definition will suggest different corrective strategies. Like Teitelbaum, Butz argued that a number of science and engineering fields "are not particularly attractive from the earnings and unemployment perspective." And as the time it takes to complete a degree and get a first job increase and the complaints about perceived subjectivity and dismal employment practices grow louder, Butz says that the rewards and satisfactions of a career in science become increasingly unattractive relative to the costs to prepare for it.

Moreover, as a good scientist, Butz closed with a plea for more data "in order to know whether shortages of scientists and engineers are in fact developing and whether strategies to encourage their production are succeeding." This one recommendation, which came at the end of the day, seemed to meet with the approval of all present--the need for a comprehensive information system capable of more accurately tracking and modeling the S&E education and workforce pathways.

Among the anticipated outcomes of the summit meeting was the hope that the participants could compile policy recommendations that might drive a communal prescription for change. To that end, James Clovis, president of the Industrial Research Institute, an organization representing 231 leading companies that together carry out approximately 70% of the industrial research effort in the United States, said that the country lacked a strategic plan to address the critical issues facing its S&E workforce. Clovis observed that the GUIRR workshop had served to demonstrate that there are many players involved in workforce development and that collectively those players had no coordination and rarely collaborated. National leadership, Clovis seemed to say, will only come when the scientific community pulls its act together and makes its collective case to policy-makers.

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