Michael S. Teitelbaum, author of a new book called “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” writes in the Los Angeles Times that claims of a shortage of scientists and engineers are exaggerated.

He reminds us that there have been at least five cycles of hand-wringing since the end of World War II about our alleged technological decline. The reality, he argues, is that the STEM fields are not suffering shortages:

“Nearly all of the independent scholars and analysts who have examined the claims of widespread shortages have found little or no evidence to support them. Salaries in these occupations are generally flat, and unemployment rates are about the same or higher than in others requiring advanced education.

“Science and engineering occupations are indeed crucial to modern economies, but they account for only a small part — about 5% — of the workforce. There is some evidence of too few professionals in certain fields that currently are hot, such as social media and petroleum engineering, or in localized hot spots such as Silicon Valley.

“But in a wide range of other science and engineering fields, and in most parts of the country, the supply appears ample and sometimes excessive. In the large field of biomedical research, for example, talented young PhDs are facing daunting career challenges, with only about 1 in 5 likely to find the tenure-track academic posts to which most of them aspire.”

He urges that we continue to strengthen math and science education in K-12, because educated citizens should have an understanding and knowledge of math and science, not because there will be lucrative careers awaiting them. There will be for some, but not for all or even most.

He writes:

“U.S. schools currently produce large numbers of high-performing science and math students (about one-third of the world’s total in science) but also very large numbers of students with low test scores that partly explain the less-than-stellar U.S. rankings in international comparisons. This is a reflection of educational and economic inequalities that need to be addressed energetically, but it is not a reason to urge every American student to pursue a STEM degree.

“Students with talent and enthusiasm for science and engineering should be strongly encouraged to pursue their interest in such careers, and informed that most do offer higher earnings than in many humanities and arts fields. Yet they also need to know about large differences in career prospects among science and engineering specialties, and to understand that conditions can and do change dramatically over time, sometimes even during the period it takes to pursue a degree.

“Given such uncertainties, students who major in science and engineering must recognize that employers value not only strong specialized skills but also broader knowledge and capabilities. They want employees who can communicate clearly with non-specialists, work effectively in multi-specialty teams and understand the basics of business and management.
Radical changes in K-12 education cannot be justified on the basis of pervasive but largely unfounded claims of widespread shortages of scientists and engineers.”

The lesson: We should increase our efforts to educate the lowest-performing students in STEM subjects in K-12, those in the bottom 25%, because these subjects are valuable for success in almost every kind of career and for informed citizenship, not because of false alarms by politicians.