Jobs requiring science, technology, engineering or math skills take longer to fill

Kansas City StarJuly 5, 2014 

The difficulty of filling STEM jobs is a challenge, and it's going to get worse. That's the assessment of a report published recently.

Across a range of industries and occupations, job postings for science, technology, engineering or math openings are being advertised on employers' Web pages far longer than for non-STEM jobs, the new Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program study finds.

"That's 100 percent correct," said Cynthia Smith, recruitment manager at the University of Kansas Hospital. "It's never been easy to find qualified people for specialized STEM positions. Those jobs have a tendency to take up to 12 weeks to fill, if not a year."

The Brookings analysis found that STEM openings nationally are advertised for more than twice as long as all other types of jobs.

And sometimes, Smith noted, the jobs have to be re-advertised because initial offers are turned down. The hospital, for example, recently spent seven months and made three offers to fill a very specific cytogenetics laboratory position.

Supply and demand

The Brookings report concluded that there is a dearth of applicants who meet advertised STEM qualifications. Other analysts suggest that the hiring problems are worsened because employers look for "perfect" candidates instead of training workers who bring other good qualities to the table and could do the work.

Brookings associate fellow Jonathan Rothwell, the study's author, said in an interview that comparative recession-era and post-recession data tend to disprove the pickiness argument.

"STEM hiring difficulty fell during the recession," Rothwell said, "Presumably that was because employers were getting more qualified applicants. It's basic Economics 101. The supply of qualified workers was higher during the recession."

There's also a vibrant national debate about whether U.S. schools are turning out enough STEM-qualified workers. Some reports contend there are plenty of STEM graduates for available jobs.

But in most human resource circles, sentiment tips to there being an inadequate supply of skilled applicants. Kansas City-area hirers said they're competing vigorously to attract engineering graduates in particular. And graduates from many specialized health and computer programs also are being snapped up.

Such recruiters' experiences endorse studies that detail the global competition for STEM talent. Those studies tend to note that it's not just traditional high-tech or science companies competing for the workers. It's just about every employer who needs some kind of computer or high-skill training on staff.

Competition for STEM skills

An Adecco consulting report says 75 percent of the fastest-growing occupations require "significant" math or science training. Thus, the competition for such workers is tougher. And the Brookings report contends the supply of workers has not kept up with demand.

"It's convincing data across millions of jobs and hundreds of companies," Rothwell said.

"Employers, especially in engineering, tell me they're constantly looking," agreed Laura Loyacomo, director of the KC STEM Alliance, a nonprofit organization that encourages STEM education. "They say they have to use H-1B immigrant work visas because they can't find enough U.S. workers. They'd rather hire regionally," because it's easier to keep workers who don't have limited work permits.

Rothwell, the Brookings author, said data show that H-1B hiring is not employers' first choice, particularly given that the work visas are temporary.

At Honeywell, because of government contracting rules, H-1B hiring isn't permitted. That makes it even more essential for the company to work hard to develop recruiting pipelines with area universities, said Susan Schwamberger, the human resources director at Honeywell.

In "challenging pockets" such as electrical engineering, Schwamberger said, the company works hard to recruit and retain workers.

Electrical and mechanical engineers and "seasoned technical line management positions," especially jobs requiring a bachelor's degree plus six years of experience, are the hardest to find at MRIGlobal, said Linda D. Evans, vice president of human resources.

Computer skills in demand

If there's any comfort in the difficulty, it's that it's a national problem that stretches across STEM employers.

The Brookings report found that specialized computer skills, despite having high salary offers, had the longest advertised times among all major occupation groups.

"Employers advertised 255 distinct computer skills in at least 500 job openings for an average of at least 40 to 71 days on their websites," the report summarized.

And in mid-sized Midwest cities, it can be hard to recruit talent from the coasts.

Melinda Tiemeyer, a spokeswoman for Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Corp., said the company wouldn't comment directly about its ability to hire, but it would reinforce the importance of companies supporting STEM education to prepare future workers.

Society "requires a higher technical understanding than ever before," Tiemeyer said.

Several Kansas City-area employers said they are having luck hiring STEM talent straight out of colleges and universities, but that, too, is competitive.

Meanwhile, the shortage of STEM-skilled workers is having a ripple effect throughout the economy. As employers have to pay ever-higher salaries to get and keep STEM talent, it widens the earnings gap between STEM and non-STEM workers, the Brookings study noted.

And that "exacerbates income inequality across all demographic groups," Rothwell said.

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