When a Soviet rocket launched Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, America freaked out. How could the uncouth Russians beat us into space? It didn't take long for scolding fingers to point at the American educational system. "Why Johnny Can't Read" was a typical newsmagazine headline of the time. Pretty soon after, we were asking why Johnny couldn't do arithmetic or perform a simple science experiment.
That turned out to be nonsense. Once the United States decided to spend the money, the space race was won -- without a fundamental reform of the educational system. Now we're hearing a new version of the same old story: America is being out-innovated by other countries, and Silicon Valley is in danger of withering as restrictive immigration policies lead to a drought of highly skilled workers.
[ InfoWorld's Caroline Craig explains why Silicon Valley's push for H-1B visas will hurt American tech workers. | Bill Snyder exposes the lie behind the H-1B push. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]
A big part of the problem, say the tech billionaires and credulous pundits, is our higher education system, which somehow can't turn out nearly enough science-savvy grads. The buzzword of the year is "STEM," which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. When it comes to STEM grads, we're falling behind the rest of the world, they say.
Don't believe it. There is no shortage of STEM graduates, and as I wrote ln February, Silicon Valley is pretending there is a labor shortage as it relentlessly lobbies to let in thousands of additional foreign IT workers under the H-1B visa program.
Although STEM sounds like a precise term, it turns out that different organizations tracking such info use different definitions for it. But the bottom line is clear: We're producing more and more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers every year. And we're innovating at a breakneck pace.
The United States leads the world in STEM grads, producing 348,484 in 2008, according to a report by Congress' Joint Economic Committee. The number of grads in engineering and science has grown enormously, increasing from just under 400,000 in 2000, to 494,000 in 2008, according to the National Science Foundation.
With the exception of Japan, the United States also holds a huge lead in the number of patents granted -- 224,505 in 2011, compared to 172,000 in China, the country supposedly eating our lunch -- according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
STEM grads not flocking to Silicon Valley, as tech wages stagnate
According to the conga line of tech pundits and tech billionaires, half a million STEM grads (certainly more by now) is still not enough.
If that's the case, you'd assume that those STEM grads would be pouring into the technology industry. But they aren't, says Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. "Two out of three people who have a STEM degree in the U.S. are not working in a STEM field," he told me. It's hard to know why that's the case, but "I suspect that if wages were higher, they'd be headed in that direction."
Salaries in computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, says Eisenbrey. "If these skills are so valuable and in such short supply, salaries should at least keep pace with the tech companies' profits, which have exploded."