U.S. has enough skilled tech workers; no STEM workforce shortage: Prof. Hira

Ritu Jha-

The U.S. has no shortage of skilled workers, according to a new report by Ron Hira,[Above photo] a professor at Howard University, based on his analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The report comes out at a time President Joe Biden has signed the CHIPS and Science Act, and there is a debate and media reports about America’s alleged dearth of skilled workers in semiconductor manufacturing.

Hira told indica, “We are producing lots of bachelor’s degrees in engineering. There is no reason why they can’t fill up these positions. And technicians’ positions require less training and less time. The new recruits could be skilled if we do not have enough. [But] actually, we do have enough.

“In the semiconductor sector, there used to be over 600,000 people working… Since 2000, the industry has shed 300,000 workers,” Hira said. “There are lots of people who can come back to the industry. You don’t have to hire untrained people.” U.S. semiconductor manufacturing employment dropped from an annual high of 676,000 in 2000 to 287,000 by 2018.

Hira pointed out that the same companies once cheered offshoring, and cited the evangelist role played by Craig Barrett, the CEO of Intel Corporation from 1998-2009.

Pointing to the report based on BLS data, Hira said he is not for relying only on the report, adding that the data needs deeper research. He said that it is very difficult to project for ten years, given that there are a lot of fluctuations in the job market.

Hira said the BLS had overestimated job growth data between 2000 and 2010, and that in 2000 it crafted its projections during the steep increase of the dot-com and telecom bubbles and did not — perhaps could not — predict the ensuing bust.

Asked about stagnation in wages in STEM fields, Hira said that it was a little surprising to him and added, “I was expecting some stagnation, but not as bad as the data [shows].”

Hira is for giving higher pay to STEM H1-B visa workers. He said that after Covid sent the demand of tech workers sky high, we need to evaluate why we have growth in computing wages.

”There is no employment growth and lower real wages, so understating the nuances and dynamics in some geography there is better wage growth we need to look a lot deeper,” he said. “We have these employers claiming they cannot find workers and yet they are also not raising wages. Either this pricing was misleading or the tech companies are not willing to raise the wages.”

He said that it is obvious that there is more supply than demand. H1-B visa workers have fewer rights, so they are paid less than what it costs in the prevalent market rates.

“The employers not only cheat them of their wages but their practice also depresses the overall market; it has a ripple effect,” Hira said. “Even if you are still employed you are competing with people who have fewer rights and that will bring the wages down,” Hira said.

Hira believes that the government should not invest much money on new jobs, and argue with the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the White House that we need more STEM jobs, until there is a fair assessment of the actual state of the labor market.

This CHIPS Act is not just subsidizing the semiconductor industry, it also adds a huge increase in the NSF which is the primary supporter of basic research, including STEM education.

The BLS data shows, “The number of degrees produced in a single academic year (148,120 in 2019–2020) exceeds not just the projected average annual growth, but the entire ten-year projected job growth from 2020 to 2030 (127,700).”

This translates to annual average growth of 56,900 positions, implying a demand for at least as many new workers in these occupations each year. But even in 2020, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in computer science alone was 97,047-40,147 more than the implied annual demand from BLS projections.

“This shows we already are getting 97,000 computer science graduates every year,” he said, adding that engineering is by far the worst affected.

Hira said it did not include graduating international students, because typically, at the bachelor’s degree level, 90 percent of the graduates are US citizens or permanent residents, unlike masters or Ph.D., where the number of international students is more.

“We don’t have to offshore; we have the requisite workforce here,” Hira said. “There is a large pool of workers that … can be easily trained. They just need basic skills and the requisite degree. They already have a degree in computer science.”

The BLS 2022-2032 report won’t come out until next year but 2020-2030.

Hira said that employment growth can be compared to last year. He said that in the short run there have been big fluctuations. As a result, Facebook and other tech companies have slowed hiring, with some tech startups resorting to layoffs.

“You have to be careful while making the short-run announcement because things can change when you are talking about training a large number of people on bachelor – a fou–year course for a 30-year career,” Hira said. “It is quite possible that computing jobs would grow faster than projected.

He has stated in the report that the 60-year track record shows the situation will not change without concerted efforts by the larger science policy community. Rather than assuming looming shortages, the conversation would benefit from a systematic investigation.

What was more surprising was the problem with wages. They were as bad, if you look at figure 4 and Figure 5, in engineering. The wages actually nosedived in computing.“Software developers make for the most skilled computing occupations,” he said.

Asked wage changes based on region. Hira said that it could change the regional economy and different job markets. There could be a shortage of specialized workforce with different skills and certain kind of software and then there is the geographical spot.

“Semiconductor companies are saying that there is a shortage and they have this defeatist attitude that the US workers are not capable of doing the work,” Hira said. “There is no support in that regard and it is remarkable that every politician and every president has said that American workers can compete with anybody. “But, then all of sudden they become defeatist about U.S. workers and say are incapable and so have to import the whole bunch of people.”

Immigration plays an important role but it is not executed in a proper way and we should be doing it selectively.

“They already went offshore and even CHIPS Acts are not going to stop, they are just bribing the companies with CHIPS Acts, and they will do whatever they want,” Hira argued.

Giving an example of Intel Corporation Hira said the revelation is Intel Corporation, the biggest recipient of the subsidy, has a workforce policy director – an important position – who should worry about the skill sets of the recruits.

“The head of that division is David Shahoulian, director, workforce policy and Government Relations is a nice guy but has no expertise in workforce development and training, his only experience is in immigration policy. So, if you are serious about workforce development and workforce policy why would you hire an immigration policy specialist? This means they are not taking that workforce policy seriously, unfortunately,” Hira said.

(Ron Hira, an associate professor in the political science department at Howard University and research associate with the Economic Policy Institute, is a licensed professional engineer and was an IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow serving in the US House Education and Labor Committee in 2017–2018.)