Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Data and Politics

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

WASHINGTON—Last month, I introduced readers to Ahmed, an engineer who arrived in America seeking opportunity but who now drives a cab for a living. In the account of Ahmed I had read, the author highlighted the discrepancy between Ahmed’s experience in the U.S. labor market and the archetypal “American dream.”

Dazzling “only in America” tales of immigrant accomplishment may be popular with politicians and the media, but, according to a study released on 20 May by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), Ahmed’s dispiriting outcome is more typical of what happens to immigrants with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees. Of the approximately 700,000 STEM degree holders who came to the United States between 2007 and 2012, just over a third work in a STEM field, states the study, titled “Is There a STEM Worker Shortage?”. A similar amount worked outside of STEM fields, and the remainder—nearly a third—reportedly did not work at all. Of all the foreign-born STEM degree holders in the country (including those who came before 2007 as children, refugees, or foreign students and those currently working here on guest worker visas), 43% have STEM jobs. Twenty-three percent of those holding degrees in engineering work as engineers, and just 16% of those with science degrees work in science. Technology fields employ the largest numbers of STEM-trained immigrants. “In total, 1.6 million immigrants with STEM degrees worked outside of a STEM field and 563,000 were not working,” says the report, which is based on census data.

In total, 1.6 million immigrants with STEM degrees worked outside of a STEM field and 563,000 were not working.

The CIS report was one factor that in recent weeks seemed to shift the focus of the STEM labor force narrative away from the usually dominant, if mythic, talent-shortage theme and toward the real travails of STEM-trained workers, both foreign and native-born, who are caught up in an employment market that is glutted with excess talent in the great majority of fields.

Also contributing to the shift were a 14 May speech on the Senate floor and a 16 May media conference call by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL). As our colleague Puneet Kollipara reported, Sessions drew attention to the current STEM labor situation and the likely effects of sharp increases in the supply of STEM workers that would follow if the comprehensive immigration bill were passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and became law. The bill, which has already passed the Democrat-controlled Senate, would raise the current number of H-1B high-skill guest workers and make it easier for foreign students earning U.S. STEM degrees to obtain permanent residency.

“Land of opportunity” imagery notwithstanding, Ahmed’s disappointment should be no surprise, the CIS data show. Between 2007 and 2012, “total STEM employment grew by only about 500,000,” the report notes. Nor are immigrants the only STEM-trained people working outside STEM fields. More than 5 million native-born holders of STEM degrees work in other fields, the report notes: “1.5 million with engineering degrees, half a million with technology degrees, 400,000 with math degrees, and 2.6 million with science degrees.” Beyond that, “[a]n additional 1.2 million natives with STEM degrees are not working—unemployed or out of the labor force in 2012.” An unknown number of those working outside of STEM fields voluntarily chose to pursue career paths other than STEM. But many scientists and engineers who wish to remain in those fields cannot find work, especially if they are older than 35.

A scholarly consensus

“It has been claimed on the floor of the Senate that the tech industries can’t find qualified Americans,” Sessions said in his floor speech, responding to a call by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for the House to pass the Senate immigration bill. “You’ve heard that charge. I’ve heard that charge. I sort of accepted it for a while, but in fact the data is showing differently. It’s rather surprising. In fact we have twice as many STEM graduates each year as there are STEM jobs,” Sessions said, adding that the statistics he used came from the research of Rutgers University labor market expert Hal Salzman.

Two days later, Salzman joined fellow STEM labor force experts Michael Teitelbaum, author of the recent book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent; Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology; and Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis, for Sessions’ conference call with reporters. “The majority of the H-1B [guest worker] program is now being used for cheaper workers," Hira said, quoted by Patrick Thibodeau in Computerworld. Contrary to claims that H-1B workers are the best and brightest, "on average, [H-1B guest workers] are slightly below the quality of Americans," Matloff said in the article, citing data on patents per capita.

Some observers have questioned the CIS study because, as Anne L. Kim writes at Roll Call, the center generally “supports stricter immigration controls.” CIS calls itself “an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization” that is “not predominantly ‘liberal’ or predominantly ‘conservative,’ ” and which believes that “debates about immigration policy that are well-informed and grounded in objective data will lead to better immigration policies.” It espouses a “ ‘low-immigration, pro-immigrant’ vision of an America that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted.”

Regardless of CIS’s philosophy, the study’s findings echo the consensus of research on the subject, agreed Teitelbaum and Steven A. Camarota, CIS director of research, at the 20 May panel discussion at which the report was introduced. “The findings of this report are broadly consistent with most of the other research reports” from “a wide range of researchers and organizations who don’t have anything really in common ideologically,” Teitelbaum said. Indeed, as Camarota said, “Reports by the Economic Policy Institute—or EPI—the RAND Corporation, the Urban Institute, and the National Research Council have all found no evidence that STEM workers are in short supply.”

Bad for America? 

Belief in a STEM labor shortage has long been an “article of faith among many elites in American business and politics,” said Camarota, who is also co-author of the report, at the CIS event. Sessions, though, is a politician who “actually gets that there's no labor shortage in the United States,” he continued.

Sessions’ skepticism about shortage claims goes back at least several years and has come up previously during Senate committee hearings. Still, good politicians are rarely without political motivations: CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian suggested that Sessions’ support of workers against business interests, in the context of immigration policy, is “part of a larger debate” about the direction of the Republican party.

“[Y]ou’d think Democrats,” who have long been considered the allies of American workers, “would look [with] a skeptical eye at every effort to increase immigration,” Camarota observed. But, Camarota said, by acquiescing to the tech industry’s desire for “increasing STEM immigration,” Democrats win industry support for what they “really want:” passage of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill, which also provides a path to citizenship for millions of workers in the country illegally. The media, too, are complicit in perpetuating shortage mythology: “[T]oo many in the media just simply transcribe their press releases,” Camarota said. Overall, he continued, the drive for increased STEM immigration combines “greed and politics, nothing that should surprise us here in this city.”

According to Sessions’ speech, any discussion of the effects of passing the Senate immigration bill is probably moot, and certainly premature, because the bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled House. “At this point in time, the House is refusing to yield to the pressure of special interest groups and political lobbyists and Senate Democrats to pass a bill that would be bad for America,” Sessions said in a Senate floor speech. Who constitutes the always-nefarious “special interests” depends, of course, on who is doing the speechifying, but in this case the data are on the side of Sessions and his mostly Republican allies.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers