October 24, 2013, 3:03 PM — As lawmakers gear up for another push for immigration reform that could expand the number of visas granted to highly skilled foreign workers, a new study is warning that U.S. schools aren't producing enough graduates with degrees in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In a survey commissioned by Bayer and released in conjunction with the Change the Equation coalition, 150 talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies from an array of industries -- both STEM and non-STEM fields -- said that their companies are creating scientific and technical positions faster than non-STEM jobs, and competition for graduates with degrees in those fields is brisk.
"The majority say that there are going to be more STEM jobs created in the future," Mae Jemison, a former astronaut and a spokeswoman for Bayer's Making Science Make Sense program, said at an event unveiling the new research. "It's really no surprise then that the competition for STEM jobs is really very fierce."
Bayer's report comes as the latest warning from the private sector about a shortfall of STEM workers, a major issue in the IT sector, where many companies have been lobbying for reforms to the nation's immigration laws that would expand the annual allotment of H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers.
Is STEM Shortage a Myth or a Reality?
But Jemison acknowledged that the notion of a STEM shortage, as a starting point, is not without controversy. "Is it a myth or is it for real? And there's a lot of commentary on both sides," she said.
Indeed, critics of expanding the H-1B cap have argued that such a move would simply give businesses a license to hire more low-wage foreign workers at the expense of their American counterparts.
But the authors of the report focused their attention on the education side of the issue, arguing that post-secondary institutions aren't keeping up with the hiring demands of the private sector. In particular, that shortfall is seen in candidates with degrees from two-year or four-year institutions, what Jemison described as the engine of the STEM workforce. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents said that competition for graduates from four-year STEM programs for positions in those fields is "fierce."
"While much of the debate today centers on the country's pool of STEM PhDs., this survey focuses on the lion's share of our STEM workforce -- those with four-year STEM degrees or less," said Bayer MaterialScience President Jerry MacCleary. "For this particular debate, we believe the jury is no longer out. As professionals responsible for scouting and hiring talent, the recruiters' firsthand knowledge is an excellent barometer of the STEM workforce realities that companies in a range of industries are facing today."
Just 55% of recruiters polled said that they can typically fill a position with a STEM-educated candidate with a two-year degree in a timely manner, while an even half of respondents said the same about candidates with a degree from a four-year program.
But the demand for graduates with STEM degrees isn't just confined to technical positions. After all, more than half of the recruiting managers polled work for companies outside the STEM fields. And of the total group of respondents, a substantial majority said that STEM graduates are more desirable for non-STEM positions than job seekers with nontechnical degrees.
"People who have STEM degrees are being sought after ... for jobs that traditionally have not been considered STEM jobs," Jemison said. "So that's going to tighten up the STEM workforce."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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