Looking for JOBS in All the Wrong Places

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on August 14, 2010.

North Carolina is trying to prepare the state for the future economy by putting recommendations from Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton’s JOBS (Joining Our Businesses and Schools) Commission into practice. Two bills that Governor Perdue recently signed into law come directly from the commission’s report. One of them seeks to increase the number of college students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); the other starts the creation of an “Agriscience and Biotechnology Regional School.”

Unfortunately, the JOBS Commission recommendations—and therefore the new laws—are based on false assumptions and unrealistic projections.

Session Law 2010-41, sets “as a priority an increase in the number of students” obtaining college degrees in STEM subjects “to reduce the gap between needed credentialed workers and available jobs in those fields by 2015.”

But this shortage of STEM graduates is a myth, according to Beryl Lieff Benderly, who writes the “Science Careers” column for Science Magazine.  She quotes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer and science training authority, who “cites the profound irony of crying shortage—as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates—while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation’s university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that don’t exist. “

Benderley said that these graduate student or post-doctoral workers often perform the “bench work” for professors with research grants, working for “$40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab” instead of progressing in their own careers, according to Benderley.

But those “low-paid, temporary” jobs are better than what they can get in private industry. The percentage of chemists who work in academia or government rose from 32 percent to 39 percent in just the six years between 2002 and 2008—before the economic downturn—according to the American Chemical Society’s Chemist and Engineering News magazine. Furthermore, the website Chemjobber, which analyzes the employment market for chemists, found that the number of ads for chemists listed in the annual September issue of Chemist and Engineering News fell gradually from 44 in 1989 to zero in 2008 and 2009. Additionally, Chemjobber shows that visits by chemical industry recruiters to Harvard have dropped dramatically in recent years.

The cause for this glut of scientific workers has a long history. With federal money for science and engineering scholarships driving a rapid increase in scientists after World War II, Benderley said that “by the early 1970s, the market for young scientists and engineers was flooded.” Despite this oversupply, academic and government analysts continued to produce studies predicting shortages. This resulted in the aggressive recruitment of large numbers of foreign scientists and students willing to work for lower wages—to address a non-existent shortage. Academia, the government, and private industry were quite willing to turn the excess supply of scientists to their advantage by hiring the newcomers at lower wages. Benderley added that “more than half of what the National Science Board has estimated as 93,000 “postdocs” (researchers with Ph.D.s) in the U.S. are now foreigners on short-term visas.”

Chemistry is not the only discipline with fictitious shortages. Vivek Wadhwa, who has founded two software companies and is now the director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, wrote in 2006 that fears of the U.S. losing its competitive edge to China and India for a lack of engineering graduates were greatly exaggerated. While “university deans, business executives, and political leaders” at that time were calling for the country to double its production of engineers, Wadhwa wrote that “if you analyze the data, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of a general shortage of engineers.”

But the JOBS Commission never turned to experts such as Wadhwa and Benderley, who have been keeping an eye on the job market for scientific and technical workers for many years. Instead, the underlying sources of information for the Commission’s recommendations seem to be one-sided. Kimberly Reynolds, Dalton’s deputy chief of staff, said that two of the “primary points of information” for the legislation were a presentation by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce entitled “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018.”

Both of these sources begin with the assumption that we need more STEM workers, without bothering to ask if the assumption is correct.

In fact, anybody expecting anything produced by or for a Bill Gates’ organization to do anything but lead cheers for more scientific and technical workers is naïve. Gates, as the founder of Microsoft, has long had a vested interest in promoting a larger supply of technical workers. He has long called to foreign technical workers, even as computer programmers were being laid off in droves during the “dotcom bust” in the first few years of the new millennium. It would be shocking if his foundation made any other claims about the future job market—no matter how bad the job market was.

Additionally, the Gates presentation relies on projections made in 2006 and 2007—before most people were even considering the possibility of an economic downturn as severe as the current one.  The slump is now entering its third year, with no quick end in sight. Businesses are still cutting costs and holding cash instead of making capital investments, largely because they don’t know what the future holds. Predictions made before the current year are highly suspect; predictions showing large-scale job growth for 2015 made a couple of years before the election of 2008 are fit only for the shredder.

The Georgetown paper is a nice academic exercise, and the authors should be complimented for its attempts to introduce dynamic economic forces into its model. However, it has such glaring flaws it should never be used as a basis for policy. For one, it confuses the difference between a job requiring a college degree and the possession of a job by a college graduate. This is a disingenuous calculation, ignoring that fact that many of those college graduates are performing functions that do not require a degree.

An even more serious predictive error is the use of the federal administration’s claims of job creation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as fact. At the end of 2008, before taking office, the Obama administration predicted that the “stimulus package” would create 3.5 million more new jobs by the fourth quarter of 2010. At the time, the Department of Labor estimated that there were 135.1 million jobs in the country; the Obama administration’s claims suggested that by the end of this year there would be 138.6 million jobs.

By July of 2010, however, the estimated number of jobs stood at only 130.2 million—an enormous 7.4 million less than the administration’s projections for just a few months from now.  Job loss estimates for July were 131,000, and, with taxes due to rise considerably in January, the downturn could last a lot longer—and possibly get worse. Projections based on the success of the ARRA’s intended job gains, such as the Georgetown paper’s, are also eminently shredder-worthy.

The proposal to create an Agriscience and Biotechnology Regional School—by Session Law 2010-183—reflects the same faulty reasoning that underlies the first law. Also, the idea that starting high school students in a specialized field will produce more experts in that field must be questioned. Fourteen is a very young age to begin such specialization, with students likely to change their intended careers several times before reaching adulthood. Only one-fifth of computer science majors continue to work in the field twenty years after graduation, according to a University of Michigan Law Review article written by University of California-Davis computer scientist Norman Matloff.

Furthermore, there is really no reason to specialize so early. At such an young age, it is sufficient to make sure that talented students gain a solid foundation in the general principles of science—and that other subjects are not ignored. The needs of even the most serious science students can be satisfied with more specialized programs or internships in the summer or after school.

Only a government commission can think to lock talented fourteen year-olds into narrow fields of study such as biotechnology, preparing them for careers that may never exist. Isn’t it time our education system went back to concentrating on what it can do well—educating—and quit trying to do something it cannot do well—create economic prosperity?

This sort of central planning, in which government decides where future demand will be and tries to change the supply to meet that demand, has been an abject failure wherever it has been tried. The entire JOBS process appears to be a stacked deck that will one day, most likely turn to “SOBS.”