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April 18, 2023

Solving the STEM talent shortage once and for all

With a clear view of what’s needed and what’s at stake, the tech community can help make the STEM shortage a problem of the past.

There’s no question that today’s complex, interconnected challenges call for innovations and solutions driven by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). And yet STEM talent is as difficult to find as ever.

Consider that as many as 3.5 million STEM-related jobs will need to be filled in the US by 2025. However, the trends for US students majoring in these fields continue on their downward trajectory, especially among women and traditionally underserved populations. That means millions of jobs could soon go unfilled.

With STEM skills essential to revitalizing and strengthening the economy—and crucial for governments and corporations to build resilient, secure, future-ready digital ecosystems—the shortage of STEM talent is now a competitively urgent problem.

We believe major technology businesses have a vital role to play in creating STEM education pathways in K-12 and post-secondary levels, as well as participating in solutions to make it easier for skilled foreign workers to put their talents to use in the US for the good of the overall economy.

High demand, low supply

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics forecasts that computer science STEM occupations will grow 15% by 2029 vs. just 3.7% for non-STEM jobs. Demand for information security analysts, software developers and computer research specialists is poised to grow by 15%. This will create over half a million computer-science related jobs alone.

At the same time, a recent survey by the National Association for Business Economics recently found that over half of business survey respondents are experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, up 10% from the previous quarter.

Despite younger generations’ rampant use of iPhones and computers, they’re not studying the technology behind them. Math scores and application and graduation rates for STEM programs are falling nationwide, in part because of the COVID pandemic. 

Cultivating domestic STEM talent

To meet this growing demand, it’s crucial that US businesses invest in domestic STEM skills in the long run. In 2018, for example, Cognizant created the $100 million non-profit Cognizant Foundation to support STEM and digital education and skills initiatives for US workers and students. By rethinking the pathways into and through the tech sector and growing more diverse talent pipelines, we are working to fundamentally reimagine the education and workforce systems in which we operate.

So far, the foundation has awarded approximately $65 million to support more than 70 organizations. We partner with grantees such as the Wounded Warrior Project, CodePath and Girls Inc. to inspire students to be become engaged in STEM programs, from 3D printing and robotics to coding and rocketry. Together with Teach for America, we sponsor the annual Innovation in Computer Science Education Awards, aimed at increasing the number of K-12 computer science teachers.

Other tech companies have followed similar paths. In 2018, Amazon launched the $50 million Amazon Future Engineer program, designed to increase STEM access for children and young adults from underrepresented and underserved communities through scholarships, grants, awards and teacher professional development.

Two years later, awarded $10 million in grants to the YWCA USA, JFF and NPower to support digital skills and workforce development programs. That same year, Microsoft launched a global initiative aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide. Combining $20 million in grants and free access to resources from LinkedIn, GitHub and Microsoft, the program includes low-cost certifications and free job-seeking tools.

Attracting foreign talent

When US businesses can’t fill open positions with domestic workers, they often seek out skilled individuals from other countries. The H-1B visa program, a non-immigrant visa that’s common in the tech industry, is a key tool for companies to fill this domestic talent gap with highly trained employees from countries like China and India. Unfortunately, the program suffers from annual application limits and a backlog made worse by—you guessed it—the COVID pandemic.

In April 2022 alone, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that US employers submitted over 483,000 H-1B registrations. But the current annual limit for H-1B petitions is just 85,000, with 20,000 of those set aside for workers with advanced degrees from US universities and the other 65,000 available through a lottery system. The competition is fierce.

According to the National Foundation for American Policy, this low ceiling is the main problem facing employers trying to secure talent from abroad. (Denial rates have fallen to the lowest known levels—2% in FY 2022—since data has been available.) To make things worse, the COVID pandemic has caused a further slowdown in consular offices, which makes it harder for applicants to get their paperwork processed.

Employers can address this bottleneck by working with industry associations and other organizations to lobby policymakers to increase the cap on H-1B visas to meet current market realities, similar to actions taken prior to the Y2K crisis.

Other changes to the legal immigration program are also necessary to ensure economic security for the US, and they need to be debated outside of the emotional “illegal immigration” constructs.

Closing the STEM talent gap

The bottom line: The US risks losing not only its competitive advantage but also its economic security if it can’t equip its workforce with the education and skills to develop and field emerging technologies. To maintain its technology leadership, US businesses and policymakers need a thoughtful, data-driven discussion on the realities of industry needs and capabilities.

With a clear view of what’s needed and what’s at stake—along with the full commitment of the business community to boost investment, interest and access to STEM education—we believe the STEM shortage will one day be a problem of the past.

Jon Beamer
Senior Director, Government Affairs
Digitally Cognizant author Jon Beamer

Jon Beamer serves as Cognizant’s primary legislative liaison with elected officials in Washington, DC. He advises senior execs on public policy issues and trends that are likely to impact the company or industry.

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