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Michael Hiltzik: Is There Really a STEM Shortage?

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Author: dianeravitch

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times is one of our most thoughtful commentators on education. He cuts through hype and spin.

Recently he noticed a startling contradiction. a spokesman for QUALCOMM bemoaned the lack of well-prepared workers for STEM jobs. But at the same time, the same high-tech corporation announced that it was cutting its workforce.

He writes:

“Alice Tornquist, a Washington lobbyist for the high-tech firm Qualcomm, took the stage at a recent Qualcomm-underwritten conference to remind her audience that companies like hers face a dire shortage of university graduates in engineering. The urgent remedy she advocated was to raise the cap on visas for foreign-born engineers.

“Although our industry and other high-tech industries have grown exponentially,” Tornquist said, “our immigration system has failed to keep pace.” The nation’s outdated limits and “convoluted green-card process,” she said, had left firms like hers “hampered in hiring the talent that they need.”

“What Tornquist didn’t mention was that Qualcomm may then have had more engineers than it needed: Only a few weeks after her June 2 talk, the San Diego company announced that it would cut its workforce, of whom two-thirds are engineers, by 15%, or nearly 5,000 people.

“The mismatch between Qualcomm’s plea to import more high-tech workers and its efforts to downsize its existing payroll hints at the phoniness of the high-tech sector’s persistent claim of a “shortage” of U.S. graduates in the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

He questions whether there is a shortage of STEM graduates, or whether the tech industries are looking to import cheap workers.

The industry claims shortages and highlights national security concerns, but the facts are complex. “”If you can make the case that our security and prosperity is under threat, it’s an easy sell in Congress and the media,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School and author of the 2014 book “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” which challenges claims of a STEM shortage in the U.S.

“Despite its “cost-cutting initiative,” a company spokesperson says, Qualcomm “continues to have open positions in specific areas, and still faces a “‘skills deficit’ in all areas of today’s workforce, especially engineering.”

Hiltzik adds:

“The industry’s push for more visas glosses over other issues. As we’ve reported, the majority of H-1B visas go not to marquee high-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft, but to outsourcing firms including the India-based giants Infosys and Tata. They’re not recruiting elite STEM graduates with unique skills, but contract workers to replace American technical employees — who often are required to train their foreign-born replacement as a condition of receiving their severance. This is the scandalous method of cost-cutting used by companies such as Southern California Edison, which outsourced the jobs of some 500 information technology employees, as we reported in February.”

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