Shortage of Scientists and Engineers?

Robert Samuelson has an article disputing the notion that there is a shortage of scientists and engineers in the US, which prompted the American Competitiveness Initiative. He makes the point that some of the statistics about the number of engineers that are trained in China and India have been inflated. Many have the equivalent of a two year associate degree. But the article does make the point that scientists and engineers are not as well paid as lawyers.

On average, American lawyers make 42 percent more than chemical engineers. At elite levels, huge pay gaps also exist. In 2005 the median starting salary for a new Harvard University MBA was $100,000. An MBA is a two-year degree. By contrast, a science or engineering PhD can take five to 10 years, with a few years of “post-doc” lab work. At a Business Roundtable press briefing, one CEO said his company might start this sort of scientist at $90,000. Does anyone wonder why some budding physicists switch to Wall Street?

Most scientists that I know did not go into science to get rich. They would like a comfortable middle class life, and I think that they are less interested in than a lawyer’s salary, than good career prospects. Spending six or seven years to get a Ph.D. and then not being able to find a job in your field does not appeal to many people.

But the main solution is obvious. “If we want more [scientists and engineers], we have to pay them better and give them better careers,” argues Harvard economist Richard Freeman. The high-tech executives who wail about scarcities are part of the problem. They “would love to have more S&E workers at lower wages,” he says.


2 Responses to “Shortage of Scientists and Engineers?”

  1. I think people who go into business or law have a different mentality from a lot of scientists. Scientists by and large have a love of learning that propels them to the lab bench–it’s similar to artists and writers. Businesspeople like to create systems that are financially profitable; there’s curiosity there, too, but the bottom line is what’s most important.

    I’m not sure about lawyers–I’ve heard enough stories about unhappy lawyers to think that a lot people go into it for the money but only those who have a passion for the detail-oriented work and can deal with contentious personalities thrive. My impression is that the reasons the work is well-paid are that it can be incredibly tedious, pressure-filled, and combative in a corporate law firm.

  2. Science and engineering were viable careers when salaries and benefits were stable and predicable. Once that had ended, with the defense layoffs of the 90s and lack of tenure at universities and natl labs, a good number of formerly trained scientists had left for IT/programming, finance, medicine, or law.

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