Human Events, September 25, 2014
Here is one of the more ridiculous claims that amnesty advocates are relentlessly pushing: that we need to legalize illegal immigrants to resolve the supposed shortages of high-skilled STEM workers, those proficient in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. But there are no such shortages and, even if there were, it is very unlikely to find large numbers of such workers among the illegal immigration population, since they are estimated to have only about 10 years of schooling on average. In a recent speech that gained national attention, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican, forcefully challenged this pro-amnesty argument, stressing that the nation has “heard for a long time the claim that there is a shortage of STEM and IT [Information Technoloy] workers,” but that we know “otherwise from the nation’s leading academics, people who studied this issue.”
In May of this year, my Center for Immigration Studies colleague, Karen Zeigler, and I put out a report that analyzed the latest government data and found what other researchers have found: Senator Sessions is absolutely right.
Last month, several of the nation’s top researchers on the STEM labor force — college professors Ron Hira, Paula Stephan, Hal Salzman, Michael Teitelbaum, and Norm Matloff — wrote a joint opinion piece for USA Today in which they stated unequivocally that “none of us has been able to find any credible evidence to support the IT industry’s assertions of labor shortages.”
Reports by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the RAND Corporation, the Urban Institute, and the National Research Council have all found no evidence that STEM workers are in short supply. In our own report, my colleague and I looked at the latest government data, which show that in 2012 there were more than twice as many people with STEM degrees (immigrant and native-born) as there were STEM jobs — 5.3 million STEM jobs vs. 12.1 million people with STEM degrees. What’s more, the supply of STEM workers is not just limited to those with STEM degrees. Nearly one-third of the nation’s STEM workers do not have undergraduate STEM degrees. Many STEM jobs in areas like computers and laboratory work can be learned on the job.
Wage trends are one of the best measures of labor demand. If STEM workers were in short supply, wages would be increasing rapidly. But wage data from multiple sources show little growth over the last 12 years. We found that real hourly wages (adjusted for inflation) grew an average of just 0.7 percent a year from 2000 to 2012 for STEM workers, and annual wages grew even less — 0.4 percent a year. Wage growth is very modest for almost every sub-STEM category as well.
So if there is a superabundance of native and immigrant STEM workers and little wage growth, why are there calls for more STEM immigration? The answer, put simply, is greed and politics. Businesses that want more immigration would get more workers, holding wages in check and increasing their bargaining power. What’s not to like? The Republicans respond to corporate donors by promising to increase STEM immigration.
The motives of Democrats are a little more complicated. They like the corporate donations, too, but even better they see increasing STEM immigration as a bargaining chip to get what they really want from Republicans — amnesty for illegal immigrants. Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez has said as much. Democrats also know that Indian and East Asian immigrants, the majority of foreign STEM workers, are generally liberal in their policy preferences and vote overwhelming Democratic — a nice bonus.
The STEM worker shortage is given credence, despite all evidence to the contrary, partly because American students do have lower average scores in science and math than other developed countries. Low average test scores are certainly troubling, but the United States is a huge country and still produces a large number of top-quality students. The STEM workforce is small and grew by just one million in the last 12 years. This is about 5 percent of the 20 million students who have graduated college since 2000, to say nothing of the millions more who got graduate degrees. Another reason that the shortage argument is taken seriously is that it is pushed by self-interested tech billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
There are a number of problems with allowing in ever more foreign STEM workers. First, the argument for doing so is deceptive and dishonest. Second, these are still mostly middle-class jobs and an enormous number of American STEM graduates are not finding STEM jobs. Third, the lack of wage growth in these occupations can only deter Americans from going into these fields. Fourth, STEM workers are vital to national defense, so if a large share are foreign-born there are national-security implications. Fifth, allowing American industry to become dependent on foreign sources of skilled labor makes industry increasingly indifferent to any problems in our schools, making it less likely we will fix them.
It is to Sen. Sessions’ credit that he is willing to stand up to much of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as incredibly well-funded special interests. If only there were more politicians willing to stand up for American workers.