China’s STEM workforce a challenge for US policymakers

America's advantage 'is eroding relative to global competitors, particularly China,' expert warns

Chinese students visit a lab at the University of Macau last year. U.S. experts fret about losing ground on highly skilled workers. (Xinhua/Cheong Kam Ka/Getty Images)
Chinese students visit a lab at the University of Macau last year. U.S. experts fret about losing ground on highly skilled workers. (Xinhua/Cheong Kam Ka/Getty Images)
Posted August 10, 2021 at 6:00am

This is the fourth part of a series on the growing competition between China and the United States over technology and scientific research.

As Congress and the Biden administration seek to rival China’s push for dominance in science and technology, policymakers are grappling with how to compete in an area where Beijing is seen as wielding a major advantage: its high-skilled workforce.

In 2000, American colleges and universities awarded about 503,500 bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields, according to a National Science Board study released in January. The same year, China awarded about 359,500, the report found.

Fifteen years later, the report said, the U.S. had boosted its output by nearly 50 percent, awarding more than 750,000 degrees. China, following more than a decade of targeted investments in its high-skilled workforce, awarded 1.7 million, nearly a 400 percent jump.

The sharp increase is one metric that underscores the uphill climb the U.S. government faces as it tries to carve out space in the market for emerging technologies like advanced manufacturing, quantum computing and 5G. While a skilled adult workforce drove growth of the U.S. economy for much of the 20th century, China is primed to take over.

“The evidence of the weakness of the educational foundation for American STEM competitiveness is clear from the performance of our students on both national and international assessments,” wrote Mark Schneider, who directs the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, in a recent op-ed for The 74, an education news site.

“There is also evidence from a large-scale international assessment of adult competencies that America’s historical advantage, based on having a skilled adult workforce, is eroding relative to global competitors, particularly China,” Schneider wrote.

Experts say those seeking answers at the higher education level are looking in the wrong place and should be focused on elementary and secondary schools. Caleb Watney, the director of innovation policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, says the culture of “reading, writing and arithmetic” is too baked into American educational philosophy.

“Our school system is kind of stuck on the Prussian model from the 1800s, and we really haven't changed the fundamental structure of how education works in the country,” Watney told CQ Roll Call. “Who chooses STEM studies in the first place is partially dependent on exposure to those skills, and those kinds of career paths, at an early age.”

Investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in early education, before students can fall behind their peers in other countries, is crucial, Watney said.

“A combination of greater exposure to these kinds of career paths and increased investment in them, especially at an earlier age, could increase the number of people who end up interested, because a lot of them aren't getting exposure to it right now,” he said.

Both the House and Senate recently passed bipartisan bills that include provisions aimed at boosting STEM education and workforce development through the National Science Foundation. The House bill, backed by Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, includes money to help NSF research science and technology education programs at the pre-kindergarten through 8th grade levels.

Lawmakers are also seeking to address longstanding racial gaps in STEM education, hoping greater diversity could give the U.S. an edge. According to the Pew Research Center, Black workers make up only 9 percent of the STEM workforce, compared with 11 percent of all jobs. Hispanics hold 8 percent of STEM jobs, compared to 17 percent in all industries.

“If we continue to neglect the education of these students and the raw talent represented by so many Americans, the U.S. will be trying to compete with at least one hand tied behind our back,” Schneider wrote in his op-ed.

The Senate bill, backed by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, would establish a Senate-confirmed position within NSF that would be tasked specifically with improving the participation of underrepresented groups in science and technology fields.

One area not addressed by recent efforts that has long hampered the government’s ability to build a competitive 21st century workforce is immigration. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers have both shown interest in overhauling the system to attract more foreign talent, partisan disagreements over illegal immigration and border security have stood in the way.

One problem, Watney said, is that the primary visa program for high-skilled workers, the H-1B program, often ties an employee to a single employer. Furthermore, the H-1B program offers a finite number of visas each year and many go to larger companies.

“So there are a lot of startups or potential startup founders that end up without access to a talented pool of immigrants and international students,” Watney said.

Another problem with the H-1B program, he said, is that it operates as a lottery.

“You can meet all of the qualifications, you can have a seven-figure salary offer from a cutting-edge firm and totally miss out because your name wasn't drawn out of the hat,” he said. “And that creates a lot of uncertainty. Why would you make future plans to try to stay in the United States if it's not even certain?”