No, We Actually Don’t Have a Shortage of Technical Talent

Jul 26, 2013
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

There have been ongoing debates for a decade or more over whether or not there is a talent shortage. If there were a real talent shortage we would have seen much different corporate behavior than we actually do see. If firms genuinely could not find the people they needed, they would have either raised wages to the point that the jobs became highly attractive or they would have invested significantly in training. Neither has happened.

While I have no hard data, my experience and that of colleagues seem to agree that there has actually been a cut back in technical training and in internships (that are often used as a way to train or provide experience to younger potential workers.) Salaries are a great predictor of desire and demand, but no one has recorded a large increase in pay for STEM graduates or experienced help. The supply has obviously been adequate to meet the demands of most organizations.

Yes, in some cases people are working more than they used to because there are staff shortages. But again, these are economic decisions, not supply issues. It really is not quantity that is important, but quality and the ability of the fewer engineers and scientists to use automation and computers to make themselves more productive.

There are many non-practicing engineers in the workforce who have chosen not to be engineers because they can earn more money doing other things. Many scientists eschew corporate life and choose academic life instead. Technicians have become scarce because potential workers realize that the jobs they do are not well paid and they work long hours, sometimes in harsh conditions with little gratitude.

The New Economy — From Hardware to Software

What has been happening is a transformation of the workplace. We are shifting from a world where the glory was in hardware — making, building, and inventing machines and tools — to one of design and software.

Most firms in the United States and Europe do not make anything directly. They are innovation and design centers, neither of which need or use large numbers of engineers, scientists, or technologists. Apple prints on the back of every iPhone “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Apple and other firms depend on a rather eclectic group of talent — people who make up a large portion of what Richard Florida has called the Creative Class. These are writers, designers, artists, anthropologists, software programmers, and the like. Silicon Valley is full of these folks. I belong to group of them called NextNow which is a global network of a few hundred people who are mostly what would be called bohemians. One invented Hypertext, another the term e-learning. Some do research, some write books or make movies, some have a technical background, but it’s not how they earn a living.

Many of these people do not have a college education and are self-taught or they apprenticed with a master or studied something very different from what they do.

The New Worker

The manufacturing portion of work is done more and more by automated tools and software or by robots. It does require engineers and technicians to build these, but far fewer than in the old economy. And, they are aided by all kinds of automation. For example, architects can work essentially alone these days. Yet, Frank Lloyd Wright had scores of draftsmen drawing plans and clerks and technicians reproducing blueprints as well as apprentices. Today a CAD machine, coupled to building code information and material specifications, does it all.

Similar reductions have occurred in almost every field from civil engineering to the semiconductor industry.  Automation has supplemented engineers, reducing the need for them and driving efficiency. Automation is entering the hospital, the surgery, and even the school with the advent of MOOCs that allow education to be distributed from one professor to thousands.

The new economy growing around us needs and uses a very different type of worker. The new generation of worker has a broader base of skills and knowledge than any previous generation. Many of them will not have gained this by traditional education (after all, around 66 percent of men who start university never finish with a degree.) They will have learned most of it by themselves through the Internet, from television, from travel, and social media. They are experimenting, being entrepreneurial, and exploring more than most other generations.

Corporations are not their natural home nor is corporate life their natural lifestyle. They are more likely to pursue self-employment or work for a small firm where the atmosphere is collaborative and there is open communication. A few larger firms such as Google and Zappos are willing to hire people with no degrees, but with passion, interest, and life experience. They invest in mentor-based training. They put them into situations where they are forced to learn rapidly. They have large portions of the workforce who have chosen to work as temporary staff or on a contract.

Talent Shortage or Not?

Absolutely not! We have an abundance of talent — wonderful, creative, and entrepreneurial folks who are already using their skills to create a new world.

We need to stop thinking about yesterday’s work world and imagine tomorrow’s. We will not need thousands and thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians.

Most of these young people will do amazing things — invent more companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Zappos. They will work often in partnership with a robot or a piece of automated software. Our economy has already moved in this way with more of GDP coming from services than from manufacturing.

Encouraging thousands of young people to pursue a STEM degree when their hearts are leading them elsewhere is a tragedy.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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