The Fake STEM Worker Shortage

A blog about business and economics.
April 24 2013 6:41 PM

Is There Really a STEM Worker Shortage?

One of my more heterodox political views is that advocacy groups do themselves a disservice by adopting BS rhetoric that simply sounds good, because they leave themselves excessively vulnerable to attack. A great illustration comes today from an Economic Policy Institute study from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and Lindsay Lowell that shows pretty persuasively that there's no real "shortage" of STEM workers in the American economy. They look at this through a variety of lenses, but the key one is simply that you're not seeing big wage gains for STEM workers of the sort that a shortage would cause. And since a lot of the rhetoric around H1-B visas for highly skilled guestworkers has focused on an alleged shortage, this kind of research constitutes a big blow to that whole frame.

At the same time, if you'd just framed the case for skilled immigrants correctly in the first place I don't think this study does really any damage to it. An influx of STEM migrants is good for the migrants themselves. It's good for the fiscal posture of the United States and for the tax base of the localities in which the STEM workers reside. And it's good for people with complementary skills or occupations, whether that's journalists or dentists or barbers or waitresses or cab drivers or what have you. Whether or not STEM migrants impose some kind of pecuniary externality on native born American STEM workers, it's a good deal all things considered.

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But is there a "shortage"? It looks like maybe not.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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