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STEM: short supply, high demand

Feb. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By JEFFREY NEAL   |   Comments
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Jeff was the Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Jeff was the Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency. ()

The federal workforce of 2,067,262 employees includes 265,105 employees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math occupations, with 123,442 in the Department of Defense alone. These highly educated employees carry out some of the government’s most important and interesting work. They conduct basic research at the Naval Research Laboratory, explore space at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), predict the weather and study the Oceans at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), conduct life-saving medical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), fund basic research in countless areas at the National Science Foundation (NSF), protect against cyber threats at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and perform many more critical jobs.

Can We Compete?

The government’s ability to compete for this critical talent has never been more important, but many in STEM fields, agency leadership and human capital management doubt the government has the tools it needs to recruit, develop and retain the right talent. The federal STEM workforce has the benefit of an environment where their work can make a tremendous difference. That commitment to mission shows up in the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Partnership for Public Service “Best Places to Work” rankings. Employees in STEM agencies show remarkable commitment to their missions and their agencies. NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have the highest job satisfaction scores in the government.

Job satisfaction is important, but it is not the only consideration. Pay, hiring processes, training investments, and STEM leader competence are all issues that need attention and introduce risk that the government will not be able to compete effectively for talent and retain what it has.

Depending on how it is defined, the federal STEM workforce varies. Pay for STEM positions, at an average of $99,229, looks good compared to the average federal salary of $77,535, but there are many STEM jobs where federal pay is simply not competitive. Cyber security experts are a great example. While technology salaries average $94,968, and entry level cyber jobs pay as little as $31K per year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average pay for cyber professionals is $116,000 per year. National Science Foundation data shows the demand for STEM talent is increasing globally. As the demand for STEM talent increases, driving up pay and benefits, the government’s ability to compete may fall far behind.

When I was Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, we struggled to compete for and retain cyber talent. Our salaries could not match entry-level salaries in industry and our hiring process could not respond quickly enough when we had recruits on the hook. OPM helped somewhat by providing DHS with an expedited hiring authority, but the pay issue was much harder to resolve. At DHS, we believed we needed hiring and pay authority specifically targeted at cyber security positions. A variety of political considerations in the Congress got in the way of addressing the problem in a meaningful way.

Demand is Outstripping Supply

The government’s increasing demand for STEM talent is not going to go away, nor is the increasing demand for STEM talent in the private sector. Unfortunately the supply is not keeping up with demand. The shortage of STEM graduates in the US labor market drives programs such as H1-B visas that non-federal employers use to attract STEM talent from other countries. 90% or more of such visas are for STEM workers. Proposals to increase the number of visas available for STEM workers have stalled in the political process and the debate over comprehensive immigration reform.

The number of STEM graduates might lead one to believe we have an abundance of STEM workers, but graduates and the number of people in the STEM labor pool are different. Many people get STEM degrees, but decide to pursue other careers or drop out of the workforce entirely. Many people with STEM degrees are working in jobs that use their STEM knowledge but are not traditionally identified as STEM jobs. There are more realistic ways to look at STEM demand, such as job postings that go unfilled, turnover rates, unemployment rates, working outside of one’s degree field, and salary escalation. A superb source of information on the Science and Engineering segment of the workforce is the National Science Foundation’s National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators report. The most recent S&E workforce report highlights several key points, all pertaining to 2010:

■ Estimates of the size of the U.S. S&E workforce ranged from approximately 5 million to more than 19 million depending on the definition used.

■ There were about 5.4 million college graduates employed in S&E occupations in the United States.”

■ About 19.5 million college graduates in the United States had a bachelor’s or higher level degree in an S&E field of study. Almost three-fourths (74%) of these college graduates (14.5 million) held their highest level of degree (bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctorate) in an S&E field.”

■ The application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread, not limited to S&E occupations. The number of college-educated individuals reporting that their jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree level of technical expertise in one or more S&E fields (16.5 million) is significantly higher than the number in occupations with formal S&E titles (5.4 million).

Government hiring in STEM positions

The S&E report also indicates about 9 percent of federal workforce hires in 2012 were in S&E positions, with one third of those in information technology. Many government agencies have been successful in recruiting based on mission and the work opportunities they offer. NASA is an example of an agency that is highly effective in marketing the agency and its mission. They are helped by the agency’s long history and its preeminent role in space exploration. NASA is NASA, and that means a lot to potential recruits. A few months ago I spoke with several members of the Mars Curiosity Rover team and it was clear that they were driven by the mission and the truly amazing work they were able to do. That does not mean it is easy for NASA to recruit mid-career STEM professionals. They struggle with that just like other agencies.

What happens when the agency isn’t NASA? Agencies that require STEM talent, but whose missions are not as sexy as NASA, are facing recruiting and retention challenges. Those are likely to increase as labor demand exceeds supply.

What's next?

The Obama administration has proposed measures to increase the STEM pipeline, as have some members of Congress. Those measures need to move forward. We also need to replace agency-by-agency solutions with a government-wide approach to STEM hiring and retention, as well as a pay and job grading system that fits the challenges we are now facing. Absent that, it is likely we will reach a point where the government simply will not be able to hire STEM talent in adequate numbers and missions that are critical to our national and economic security will be put at risk.

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