Loss of STEM Careers
By Dan Donahoe
A Texas housewife and President
Obama held a video conference on 30 January .
Mrs. Jennifer Wedel spoke truth to power as she
explained that her husband had been laid off and
was unable to find another job in the
semi-conductor industry within the Dallas
metropolitan area. This was contrary to the
President’s assertions to Mrs. Wedel claim that
there was a shortage of engineers, reflecting
his call for green cards for graduating foreign
students in his State of the Union Address less
than a week earlier .
The President, reacting quickly during the
interview, apparently determined that his
preconceptions might be in error and offered to
circulate Jennifer’s husband’s resume.
The Department of Labor
predictions for the decade (2008-2018) projected
1 percent growth and virtually zero growth for
electrical and electronics jobs, respectively,
and 11 percent overall job growth across all
engineering fields . The United States
produces almost four times as many engineers
annually, without adding immigration . Mrs.
Wedel’s admirable courage forces each of us to
ponder the wide gap between beliefs about the
tech industry and the realities on the street.
What’s Wrong with the H-1B?
The H-1B is a temporary work
permit. It allows people to work in the
for three years (renewable once, for a total of
six), although people can stay longer if they
have applied for a green card. There are 85,000
H-1B visas available each year.
The program has many flaws. The
most damaging is that the visas are owned by
employers, not employees. This gives companies
complete control over the residency status of
H-1B workers. Would you demand a raise if you
knew your boss could have you kicked out of the
country? Would you refuse to work on weekends
or accept worse benefits? I wouldn’t, and
neither do many H-1B workers.
As a result, H-1B visas can
easily be used to undercut, and even replace,
American workers. Just knowing that employers
can tap this significant source of easily
exploited workers can suppress wages.
Worse, the H-1B has often been
used to outsource American jobs. Companies
contract with outsourcing companies, which hire
almost no one but H-1B workers, to replace their
IT and other departments. After learning their
now jobs, the H-1B workers are sent home –
taking the former American job with them. This
is legal. A recent ComputerWorld article
observed that the
top five users of the H-1B are
For more than a decade, IEEE-USA
has pushed Congress to reform the H-1B program
to reduce the damage done by this poorly
designed program. Legislators will need to hear
more from their voters before they will take
Compelling arguments against the
temporary H-1B visa program have long been
provided, most notably by two tireless scholars,
Norman Matloff [1, 2] and Ron Hira .
visa program has frustrated both American job
seekers and visa holders . Although IEEE-USA
has been and continues to be critical of the H-1B visa
program , it is currently pushing to expand permanent
resident visa programs .
The H-1B visa program, as we
know it today, was created to support business
(and politicians’) claims that they could not
find enough qualified employees. The myth of the
qualified labor shortage grew during late 1980s
with the Y2K bug and peaked in the 1990s during
the dot.com boom. Many of the initial
misconceptions about the perceived labor
shortage were due to flawed analysis by the
National Science Foundation in the 1980s .
The Millennium bug passed without incident and
the dot.com bubble burst, and the labor market
expanded and contracted, but claims of shortages
Although the business claim is
flawed, some aspects of the issue cannot be
casually dismissed. For example, American
university graduate programs in engineering
today are dominated by foreign nationals as
demonstrated in a table from a study sponsored
by the Semiconductor Industries Association .
This table lists the top 25 universities from
which the 2008 class of American engineering
PhDs earned their bachelor’s degrees. Less than
5 percent of these PhDs are products of American
The purported lack of skilled
employees is buoyed by a perception of a decline
in American competitiveness, as famously addressed
by the National Academies in a lengthy list of
policy recommendations in 2007 .
In response to the alleged shortages of qualified
American engineers and technology professionals,
numerous initiatives have been launched to boost
interest in STEM (Science,
Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and to
strengthen STEM education in
the United States. Unfortunately, these programs have not
successful, and many blame the laziness of
modern students, the ineptitude of their
teachers, poor parenting or, when there are no
more other excuses remaining, they may even jump
to moral decay as a causative agent. However,
the failure of STEM is due to the fact that the
very policies that created the shortages
continue unabated. This is not a uniquely
American problem .
The best way to increase interest in STEM
degrees is by making certain that STEM careers
are actually viable. Several years ago, I
attended an NCAA women’s soccer game between
Santa Clara and Stanford, and I asked the nearby
undergraduates if any of them were majoring in
engineering. The response was, “Why would anyone
major in engineering?” Ralph Wyndrum, the 2006
President of IEEE-USA once said, “We engineers
would do this for free.” I believe that Ralph
meant that he, and the community of dedicated
volunteers within IEEE, was predestined to do
engineering work. Not every student can be
expected to share such enthusiasm. Figure 1
shows a plot of declining student interest in
engineering provided by the ACT, Inc. testing
Figure1 - High School students on engineering
A very simple plot of historical
federal investment in R&D (Figure 2 below) shows
a correlation with production of American STEM
graduates.  In
recent years, American investment in R&D has
been on a downward trend.
Figure 2. The graph that (may have helped)
launch hundreds of
thousands of dollars in R&D funding.
Source: Merrilea J. Mayo, MRS Bulletin (Vol.
32, July 2007)
It is not just undergraduates
and high school students who do not understand
what engineering careers entail. When employers
tell politicians that they cannot find qualified
engineers, one of the problems is that the
definition of engineer is itself being
abused. The dot.com executives mean something
different by engineer than an aerospace company
may mean by the title engineer. Engineering
degrees programs are accredited by ABET
(formerly known as the Accreditation Board for
Engineering and Technology) .
In addition, engineers who face the public are
required to hold an engineering license in all
states and territories .
Software engineering is not yet uniformly
licensed, but IEEE-USA has been working with NCEES,
the IEEE Computer Society, NSPE
and the state of Texas to develop a
licensing examination for software engineers
that could eventually be adopted by states'
licensing boards .
Many employers allow the title software engineer
to be applied to their employees who only have
private certifications. The growth of software
jobs and relatively little regulation created a
cottage industry that is focused on creating
certification programs. Growing corporate use of
outsourced hiring agencies (rather than hiring
managers themselves), who seek congruence
between job candidates and these new
certifications, further adds to the confusion.
With the certification programs, various
academic accreditation agencies, licensing
requirements and misconstrued job titles, it is
no wonder that the semantic trap of defining
engineer almost caught President Obama in his
discussion with Mrs. Wedel.
My own belief is that business
practices created this engineering skill
shortage problem by adherence to a business
mythology, and that government policies are
exacerbating the problem. An underlying issue in
this mythology is businesses fad (fashion).
Examples of fads include the responses to
perceived Japanese competitive advantages in the
1980s by the massive investment in quality
programs, the reengineering fad of the 1990s
(consisting of deployment of enterprise resource
planning software coincident with massive
layoffs and outsourcing), massive efforts to
combat the Y2K bug, speculative investment in
dot.coms, and the more recent investment craze
in social networks. Business thought is replete
Another business mythology is
our national preference for a so-called service
economy over manufacturing. The business
concept is that we can outsource manufacturing
to the developing world where recurring costs
(the assembly labor) are lower, because,
somehow, we seem to believe that there is more
value in providing services than in the goods
created. This belief has resulted in wholesale
technology transfer out of the United States [12,
18], and many Americans have such poor
technology history knowledge that they believe
that the outsourced products were invented and
developed in these outsource countries. How
could anyone be surprised that American
innovation is slowing ?
So how are we doing in the high
tech sector? According to the latest NSF Science
and Engineering Indicators, employment in the
five U.S. high-technology manufacturing sectors
reached a peak in 2000.The total job loss in
high technology manufacturing over the period
(2000-2010), illustrated below in Figure 0-30,
was 687,000—a decline of 28 percent since 2000
this is almost the same number (675,000) of
alleged shortfall of scientists and engineers,
as reported by NSF in 1989 (but in the wrong
I call on interested U.S. IEEE
members to become engaged in helping to
formulate IEEE-USA’s policy
positions, because my interaction with IEEE
colleagues in Silicon Valley has taught me that
we IEEE members have real power to influence. It
is time to use that power .
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Opinions expressed are the
Dan Donahoe, MBA, Ph.D., PE,
is an IEEE Senior Member, a member of the IEEE
CPMT BoG, associate editor of IEEE Transactions
on Components, Packaging and Manufacturing
and a member of IEEE-USA's Career Policy