July 6, 2014

Science, tech, math jobs take longer to fill

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

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

Across a range of industries and occupations, job postings for science, technology, engineering or math openings are being advertised on employers’ webpages far longer than for non-STEM jobs, the latest Brookings Metroplitan 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.

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.

From a database produced by Burning Glass, a labor market analytics company, the Brookings report looked at Kansas City, one of 100 U.S. metro areas it researched. Local data confirmed that on average it takes days or weeks longer to fill openings that require STEM skills than non-STEM openings.

At Black & Veatch, the Kansas City area’s largest engineering firm, the competition for civil, electrical and mechanical engineers is particularly intense, said Chris Gould, the company’s director of global talent acquisition and mobility.

“We’re having retirements from an aging workforce, we’re seeing less graduates in the field and, since word is out that Kansas City is a strong engineering town, we’re seeing a lot of companies from Houston, Denver and the like coming up here to hire from here,” Gould said. “Our folks have recruiters calling them every day.”

Local recruiters’ experiences support 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.

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.

“Its 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 goverment 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.

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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