Why America Desperately Needs More Scientists & Engineers

STEM Careers

Studies have shown that the number of jobs available in the United States is directly related to advances made in science and engineering.  Education experts feel that if America has few leaders developing the technological advances that will create the jobs of the future, then the future will hold few opportunities for our young workers.

With only about 4% of college graduates receiving degrees in engineering or science (source), the United States is ahead of Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Cameroon.  However, it is behind most other nations, and certainly at the bottom of the list of developed countries.  Since 50-85% of job growth in the U.S. is dependent on scientists and engineers, our ability to turn out graduates in STEM-related fields is more important than ever.

[Note: STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, math.]

Consider this. It took 700 engineers to create the iPod, which then led to the creation of 14,000 more jobs in the U.S. alone (source). During the development of the iPhone/iPad, most of the engineering work was completed outside the U.S.  Apple and its contractors currently employ over 700,000 people in other nations because of the availability of engineers in those countries. Prior to his death, Steve Jobs is said to have told President Obama that the reason Apple directly or indirectly employs these 700,000 people outside the United States is because it can’t find 30,000 engineers in the United States.

Some may claim that companies like Apple are using this as an excuse – that the U.S. does produce enough engineers/scientists, but are instead driven by profit (hiring overseas is cheaper). This may be the case in some instances, however the numbers don’t lie (source):

PhD Engineering Graduates (U.S.)
U.S. Citizens/Permanent Residents:
1998 = 53.39%
2009 = 42.78%

Temporary Visa Holders
1998 = 46.61%
2009 = 57.22%

It would be foolish to assume that the vast majority of temporary visa holders are remaining in the U.S. to fill jobs once they’ve completed their education. As indicated above, we’re clearly seeing a decline in U.S. PhD levels. While some companies may be sourcing jobs overseas for economic reasons, I think this is the exception rather than the rule. It stands to reason that if America successfully increases the number of STEM graduates it produces, thousands (if not millions) of new jobs will increase in direct proportion to the increase in technological advances these STEM graduates will produce.

A Broken Educational System

Training enough scientists and engineers in the near future will not be an easy task, since our educational system is not producing enough high school graduates who are prepared for demanding college courses.  In fact, some college freshmen are actually advised to take easier classes in order to assure that they make good enough grades to graduate.

Several years ago (2005), the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine established a committee to study what needs to be done to encourage more young people to take tougher classes, both in high school and college.  They issued a report called, The Gathering Storm, that made recommendations for fixing the nation’s K-12 public education system.  They found that not only are we not producing enough scientists/engineers, we are also alarmingly bad at producing high school graduates.  Most recently (2010), the organizations released a new report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited [PDF], which states that the situation in the U.S. has become even more bleak. Today, the U.S. has one of the highest secondary school dropout rates in the developed world. Even our top students are falling behind. American 15-year-olds have been ranked 17th in science and 25th in math when tested against the 34 most developed nations.  In 2011, they dropped to 32nd in math against the same 34 countries (source). Meanwhile, it is estimated that of every 3,100 8th graders in America, only one will go on to get a Ph.D. in engineering or science.

While we are falling further behind, other countries are stepping up their investments in science education.  A $2 billion investment from the Russian government has opened up so many science and engineering educational sites in Tomsk that that Siberian town has become the center of Russia’s IT industry. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened in 2009 in Saudi Arabia with an endowment greater than that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. China is providing scholarships for over 200,000 of its students to study abroad in the fields of science and engineering every year. The United Kingdom is increasing its investment in non-defense research and development by 25%.  India is investing in nanotechnology education hoping to become a hub for that industry.

The original ‘Gathering Storm’ and the follow-up reports have attracted high-level interest and some steps have been taken towards making educational improvements that will lead to more job creation at home. Overall however, U.S. officials have largely ignored the reports in a rush to save money by defunding education. Instead of investing more in its students, we continue to see the closing of university departments in science fields. Officials justify their reasoning by claiming that few American students elect to take science courses in college anyway, so why waste funds on them?

Where We Are Today

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a $71B increase in Department of Education funding directly focused on STEM (source). While this is a step in the right direction, my guess is that this will have little/no significant impact on the numbers I outlined above if changes aren’t made in other areas as well. A recent report [PDF] by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) indicates that states are spending, on average, 28% less per student in fiscal year 2013 than they were in 2008 while college tuition costs continue to climb. While the CBPP indicates this is a result of states not raising taxes (not something I necessarily agree with), the chart below is indicative of a growing problem.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. needs to produce more scientists and engineers in the future. I don’t believe for a minute that our young people are to blame for the declines discussed above. Nor do I believe that closing doors to them in these fields in the quest to save money is the right approach either. This is a matter of readjusting our national educational priority.

STEM needs to be a PRIMARY focus in education throughout our students’ K-12 years. I’m not claiming that important subjects such as art, music, literature, and language aren’t necessary components of a well-rounded education. Of course they are. I’m simply advocating a change in our approach to education and stating that the primary emphasis, moving forward, instead focus on better preparing our students for success in STEM-related fields. As long as we continue to force our teachers to “teach to a test” (Read: No Child Left Behind) however, we will continue to churn out a greater number of students that are woefully unprepared for the rigors required to complete collegiate-level STEM programs. This in turn will lead to a continuing decrease in the number of scientists/engineers in America. As this happens, the country will invariably continue to fall behind the rest of the developed world in technological innovation and leadership. Is that what we really want for our kids and future generations? I certainly don’t.

CBPP Image

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