Pro or parasite?

Concern that the US is losing its competitive edge because of a decline in STEM graduates

There are a lot of CIOs around who dismiss the idea of hiring graduates fresh out of college. I know, because I've spoken with many of them. They clearly have their reasons, and it would be foolish to claim that none of them are legitimate. But it seems like an awfully shortsighted approach to skills management.

Of all the issues we cover, none seems more volatile or emotional than the subject of IT skills and labor management, encompassing as it does issues like H-1B visas, offshore outsourcing and the debate over whether an IT labor shortage even exists. During a panel discussion on this topic at the Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference last month, we polled the audience to see whether attendees believed there is such a shortage. Forty-six per cent said yes, 43 per cent said no, and 11 per cent said they weren't sure. I wasn't surprised to see the results so evenly split.

The lack of consensus extends to the question of whether the US education system is producing enough graduates in technology-related fields. We've all read about the concern that the US is losing its competitive edge because China, India and other countries are educating far more scientists and engineers. But there's plenty of debate over whether that concern is legitimate.

For example, last November, Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute testified before Congress that research conducted in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University and Georgetown University found no shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates in the US.

"The available data indicate that the United States' education system produces a supply of qualified STEM graduates in much greater numbers than jobs available," Salzman testified. "If there are shortages, it is most likely a demand-side problem of STEM career opportunities that are less attractive than career opportunities in other fields."

What needs to be factored into the equation, however, is that a hefty percentage of those graduates are foreign nationals.

According to Salzman's report, in 2005, 38 per cent of computer science and 42 per cent of computer engineering graduates in master's degree programs were non-US citizens. To the extent that the benefit of the knowledge gained by those foreign students lies outside of the US, it's clear that there's still a lot of work to be done to encourage young Americans to advance US competitiveness by pursuing degrees in STEM disciplines.

What's equally clear is that if the message being sent to our young people is that companies will be reluctant to hire them when they graduate, they'll steer clear of technology, the pool of homegrown talent will dry up, and the question of whether there's an IT labor shortage will be far less debatable.

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