IHS Chemical Week


US STEM workforce shortage: Myth or reality? The jury is in


MacCleary: Producers need to
engage and enact programs that
promote STEM education.
Once an overlooked topic, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has moved to the forefront of conversations—recognized as a key driver of economic revitalization in the United States. With the topic now firmly established, a new debate has emerged in STEM circles—Is the United States actually experiencing a STEM workforce shortage? 

Those who dispute the workforce shortage contend that the number of STEM degree holders, particularly at the Ph.D level, exceed the number of available STEM jobs. They also cite findings from The Economic Policy Institute regarding stagnant wages for mathematics-related professionals as an indicator of oversupply. On the opposite side of the argument, proponents of a STEM shortage contend that while the United States may have enough Ph.D.’s, there is indeed a shortage of two- and four-year STEM degree holders. With both STEM and non-STEM companies now actively recruiting STEM candidates for all jobs, the pool of workers isn’t enough to meet the demand.

So which argument is right: Is the STEM talent shortage a myth or reality?

At Bayer MaterialScience, we certainly have experienced issues finding and recruiting STEM talent. This has particularly been an issue when it comes to hiring for manufacturing jobs—a troubling trend for business as the United States looks to reinvigorate this field. Unfilled STEM jobs are just plain bad for business, whether you’re running a STEM company or a non-STEM company. It can lead to productivity loss and limit growth.

A new opinion survey of talent recruiters at the nation’s Fortune 1000 companies—commissioned as part of our annual Bayer Facts of Science Education research project—reveals a robust jobs picture for new hires with two- and four- year STEM degrees. At the same time, these companies, particularly in the manufacturing sector, are reporting difficulty in finding qualified candidates as competition is “fierce” to fill positions. Those who cannot fill open positions overwhelmingly believe it is because there is a shortage of STEM degree candidates, leading to a significant number of unfilled STEM jobs at their companies.

The survey also confirms another phenomenon at work, one that supports the “undersupply” argument. The overwhelming majority of these talent recruiters say that both two- and four-year STEM degree holders are the hottest commodity in terms of job candidates for any open positions. That’s remarkable. It means that a college graduate with a degree in civil engineering could now be more in demand for a job not traditionally defined as STEM—such as logistics, supply chain, procurement, and sales and marketing. This candidate could be in higher demand than his or her liberal arts degree counterpart, who in years past would have been considered the right candidate for such a non-STEM job.

This finding certainly lends credence to the argument that STEM skills are prized by employers for both STEM and non-STEM jobs and that those with STEM backgrounds often divert off the traditional STEM jobs path into other, potentially more lucrative or rewarding careers.

So if there is a STEM workforce shortage of two- and four-year STEM degree holders, how do we solve it?

There are a couple of pieces to this. First, building a pipeline of STEM talent starts early. The United States needs to invest in quality STEM education at the earliest possible level, beginning in elementary schools. Hands-on, inquiry-based science learnings are particularly effective as they grab students and keep them engaged in science. As students grow, their learning must too with real-world, hands-on science projects and experiments, coupled with career opportunities.

The reeducation of Americans about the value of two-year community college and technical degrees is imperative. You don’t need an advanced degree like a master’s or a doctorate to work in STEM.

However, a change in attitude and the education system will take a significant amount of time. It’s up to employers to take matters into their own hands to develop the skilled talent they need.

At Bayer MaterialScience, we’ve taken this challenge head on, developing our own programs designed to recruit, develop and manage our two- and four-year STEM degree worker pipeline. One highly successful example is at our facility at Baytown, TX. A decade ago, we would receive about 2,000 applicants for 20 to 30 jobs. Today, we get about 250 applicants. Filtering through those applicants leaves us with about 40 true candidates, a monumental drop in qualified candidates by any stretch. Consequently, we have had positions vacant for up to nine months.

So we’ve addressed the problem by creating the Baytown Manufacturing Internship Program with local community colleges to train full-time process technology operators for the plant. Since it launched in 2011, the program has had 54 production technician internship positions with a 90 percent intern to hire rate.

Manufacturing industry employers understand why we do this. Throughout the survey, their voice resonates louder than companies in the other industries represented. They’re creating more new STEM jobs than non-STEM jobs, but are having a harder time finding STEM talent to fill those jobs and are competing in a fiercer talent recruitment arena than other types of companies.

Why should we take their word? 

Because listening to what they are telegraphing is critical to understanding the nation’s STEM workforce landscape. For them, the STEM supply-demand issue is not theoretical. The issues they are facing in recruiting talented STEM candidates affect all of us in the science and chemical fields.

As science-based companies, we can all do our part to ensure there are enough capable and qualified STEM candidates for the anticipated workforce needs of the future. By engaging in national conversations and enacting programs geared around STEM education, we can make a difference.

Jerry MacCleary is president of Bayer MaterialScience (BMS) LLC for the Nafta region and serves as the senior representative for Bayer in Pittsburgh. MacCleary also leads the Polyurethanes business for the Nafta region of BMS, a responsibility he has held since 2004.

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