The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
For years high-tech corporations have warned of a shortage of scientists and engineers. [See Why Americans Don't Study Science—It Doesn't Pay] The latest (alleged) evidence: the cap of 65,000 H-1b visas for fiscal 2006 was reached in August, 14 months prior to the fiscal year in which the visas would be used.
But a high-tech manpower shortage? Rarely have cold hard facts offered less support to this assertion. Just look at the latest figures on science and engineering graduate enrollment as reported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). (Table 1)
In 2003 (the latest year of available data):
The newly perceived attractiveness of a career in science and engineering is most dramatically seen in the numbers of first-year S&E grad students. In 2003:
Foreign students accounted for a smaller share of S&E enrollment in 2003 (31 percent) than in 2002 (32 percent.) For nearly a decade this trend has gone in the other direction.
Are they cockeyed optimists? Perhaps. The median salary for all S&E doctorate holders was an unspectacular $77,000 in 2001, up just 10 percent from 1995 levels.[ Employment Sector, Salaries, Publishing, And Patenting Activities Of S&E Doctorate Holders , NSF, June 2004 PDF] Many newly minted Ph.D.s accept post-doc appointments in the $25,000 to $35,000 range.
These modest salaries force many S&E graduates to seek employment in other fields. The NSF found, for example, that 4.2 percent of science and engineering PhDs work outside their field of training, chiefly for financial reasons.
Things can change quickly, however. A tech sector boom could increase demand for scientists and engineers faster than supply. If market forces are set free, the resulting shortage will be temporary: Demand will drive up S&E salaries, attracting still more U.S. citizens into science and engineering, nullifying the need for "temporary" H-1b workers.
The sky, after all, is always falling.