The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent

Books and reports discussed in this article

A National Talent Strategy

a report by the Microsoft Corporation
32 pp., available at news.microsoft.com

Introduction to Technocracy

by Howard Scott and others
John Day, 61 pp. (1933)
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama with teenage inventor Joe Hudy of Arizona during a demonstration of Hudy’s Extreme Marshmallow Cannon at the White House Science Fair, February 2012

1.

Pronouncements like the following have become common currency: “The United States is falling behind in a global ‘race for talent’ that will determine the country’s future prosperity, power, and security.” In Falling Behind?, Michael Teitelbaum argues that alarms like this one, which he quotes, are not only overblown but are often sounded by people who do not disclose their motives. Teitelbaum vehemently denies that we are lagging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, now commonly abbreviated as STEM. Still, he writes that there are facts to be faced:

• In less than 15 years, China has moved from 14th place to second place in published research articles.

• General Electric has now located the majority of its R&D personnel outside the United States.

• Only four of the top ten companies receiving United States patents last year were United States companies.

• The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

A recurring complaint is that not enough of our young people and adults have the kinds of competence the coming century will require, largely because not nearly enough are choosing careers that require the skills of STEM. A decade ago, the Business Roundtable was urging that we “double the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.” We’re now at that year, but the number of degrees awarded in those fields has barely budged. More recently, a panel appointed by President Obama asked for another ten-year effort, this time to add “one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”1 Where the missile race was measured by numbers of warheads, now we hear of a race to award more diplomas.

Contrary to such alarmist demands, Falling Behind? makes a convincing case that even now the US has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb. Teitelbaum points out that “US higher education routinely awards more degrees in science and engineering than can be employed in science and engineering occupations.” Recent reports reinforce his claim. A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer scientists were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training.2

Teitelbaum stresses a fact of the labor market: contrary to the warnings from a variety…


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