Perspectives: Empty Promises in the STEM Fields

Are efforts to broaden diversity leading to empty promises of increased employment opportunities in science and engineering? The U.S. Government has been promoting and funding programs since the 1980s to increase the number of American women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities in the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce.

However, industry has been steadily outsourcing STEM jobs and importing STEM talent from other countries through the increasing use of immigration visa programs. This raises an important question: To what extent has or will this practice of getting STEM talent as expeditiously as possible from elsewhere take away from jobs that Americans can and want to fill — especially African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, who have been traditionally underrepresented in the STEM workforce?

Recognizing the declining number of American scientists and engineers, Congress enacted the Science and Engineering Opportunities Act in 1980. The act authorized the National Science Foundation (NSF) to undertake or support a comprehensive science education program to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM workforce. Since then, NSF and other federal agencies have supported broadening diversity programs for these underrepresented groups and have invested billions of dollars in education programs at K-12 schools in urban and rural areas, minority-serving institutions of higher education and post-graduate training programs. Most recently, for example, federally funded National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants have become available to low-income college juniors and seniors majoring in a STEM discipline or a critical need foreign language.

In the book, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future, the National Academies recommends that importing talent from other countries be a short-term fix to boost our pool of scientists and engineers. It is the Academies’ view that the United States should import STEM talent from throughout the world, and that doing so would have minimal effect on STEM jobs for Americans, especially for doctorate-level workers. But, what about the growing number of graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in science or engineering? While an emphasis on quickly recruiting talent from overseas may address some of our immediate workforce needs, the strategy ignores the potential long-term effects on employment opportunities for those currently underrepresented groups in the STEM fields. These groups already encounter discrimination and other barriers to STEM jobs. The trends of outsourcing jobs and importing STEM workers from abroad will only create another barrier. Moreover, with the country focused on winning the science and technology race, concern for these underrepresented American groups could become marginalized by the increased recruitment of foreign workers.

What motivates U.S. industry to look beyond our borders are the lower salaries that STEM professionals from other countries are willing to accept. For instance, according to a study conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, non-U.S. citizen computer analysts/programmers working in the United States on an H-1B visa are paid significantly less than their American counterparts.

The number of scientists and engineers from foreign countries is on the rise. In its report, “The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America’s Potential,” the National Science Board states that “Census-based estimates of the population of S&E occupations filled by scientists and engineers born abroad show steep increases at every degree level from 1990 to 2000, reflecting both the immigration patterns of the 1990s and the inflow of foreign specialists under various work visa categories.” Although this trend has subsided since public concerns about national security and allowing foreign workers access to government-classified information increased after 9/11, the outsourcing of jobs and using workers with H-1B visas and other visas has re-opened the gates for foreign scientists and engineers to access STEM jobs.

Recognizing this trend, the National Science Board recommended that studies be conducted on the effects that the infusion of international students and temporary workers has on the domestic workforce and that science and engineering fields must be declared/made priorities. These studies should include an investigation on the impact of using international workers on Americans from underrepresented groups who are seeking a career in the STEM fields. This research would shed light on the effectiveness of government policies and programs aimed at broadening access for underrepresented groups.

– Dr. Walter V. Collier, president of C&A Technologies Inc., is conducting a study for the National Science Foundation on policies and programs for broadening diversity in STEM fields within other federal agencies.


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