Is there a shortage of STEM workers in the United States?

Via Matt, Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and Lindsay Lowell suggest there is no shortage because we do not observe significant wage rises for STEM workers.  That’s a fact worth knowing and I am happy to praise the study in that regard.  But it’s painting the basic worry into too narrow a box with its use of the word “shortage,” interpreted so literally.

The core claim is that STEM sectors will be those which produce the future social increasing returns for the economies which house them.  If true (I am not trying to prejudge this), that means we should invest in both more STEM workers and more complementary inputs, whether that be particle colliders, NIH funding, the right broadband infrastructure, legalizing driverless cars, better IP law, tougher schools, or whatever.  With the new, additional STEM workers, and the complementary inputs, America will (supposedly) be much better off.

To point out that the current supply of STEM workers stands in proper proportion to the other inputs suggests only that we are at a local optimum, not a global optimum.  Similarly, it could have been pointed out that, before the rise of Hyundai, South Korea had just the right number of auto workers (not many) for their factories (also not many).  That could have been true enough, but still investing in more auto factories and more auto workers was for Korea a very good path forward.

On top of all that, the report shows a worrying lack of concern about the notion of an economic margin.  Even without boosts in the complementary inputs, more STEM workers still can be put to good use, even if there is no “shortage” today.

Here is a related post by Adam Ozimek.  And Daniel Kuehn responds.


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