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The Native-Born STEM Shortage

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, April 28th, 2016


Written by Jacqueline Varas

Executive Summary

This paper examines current labor force trends and projected occupational growth rates to shed light on the potential labor shortage in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) occupations. We find that if current trends continue, in 2024:

  • The U.S. will be short 1.1 million STEM workers overall,
  • Approximately one million of the unmet STEM worker demand will be for U.S. citizens, and
  • The health care industry is among the fastest growing in the economy and will face the greatest shortage of STEM workers.

One response to this shortage would be for policymakers to increase legal immigration by expanding the H-1B program for high-skilled foreign labor. They could also extend Optional Practical Training to give international students sufficient time to contribute to the U.S. economy after graduation and match with an H-1B employer.


Programs that allow foreign workers to temporarily come to the United States, like the H-1B visa program for highly skilled migrants, are controversial. Critics believe they enable immigrants to take jobs that would otherwise be filled by qualified American workers. Recently, several presidential candidates have warned against the H-1B program’s negative labor market impacts, vowing to suspend or eliminate it altogether.

Last month the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration held a hearing to debate this exact issue. Some participants suggested that the H-1B program is a beneficial tool for employers to fill the current shortage of American talent in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) occupations. Others warned that access to cheaper, foreign labor incentivizes employers to displace native workers even though no STEM shortage exists.

This debate is nothing new; groups on both sides have presented empirical evidence both proving and disproving the existence of an American STEM worker shortage. In this paper, The American Action Forum (AAF) investigates the supply of native-born STEM workers in the United States to evaluate the merits of the H-1B program.


We find that if current trends continue the U.S. will likely be short 1.1 million STEM workers in 2024. The following table shows the future supply and demand of all STEM workers, including temporary foreign guest workers. STEM-table1

Table 2 examines the future shortage of only U.S. citizen STEM workers. This does not include any H-1B or other temporary, noncitizen labor.


AAF finds that the U.S. will be short roughly one million U.S. citizen STEM workers by 2024. However, this shortage is not consistent across all STEM occupations. Table 2 shows that the shortage of U.S. citizens working in health care, architecture, and engineering STEM occupations is expected to reach over 1.2 million by 2024. Conversely, AAF projects a surplus of almost 400,000 U.S. citizen STEM workers in occupations related to computer, mathematics, and life, physical, and social science.

Health care occupations have experienced rapid, sustained growth in recent years and are a driving force behind the STEM Growth in nurse practitioners alone is projected by BLS to reach 35.2 percent from 2014 to 2024.vii Similarly, the number of physical therapists and physician’s assistants are projected to rise by over 30 percent each.viii This may help to explain the expected shortage of almost 700,000 U.S. citizens in STEM healthcare occupations by 2024. Some STEM occupations with projected surpluses, like sociologists and related workers, are expected to contract over the next decade.

The citizenship status of STEM workers can also help to explain inconsistencies across occupational groups. For instance, 12.6 percent of Computer and Mathematical workers in 2014 were not U.S. citizens, while only 4.2 percent of health care workers were the same. This suggests that occupations with more foreign workers may be less likely to experience shortages than those that rely heavily on U.S. workers.

Download full version (PDF): The Native-Born STEM Shortage

About the American Action Forum
AAF provides data-driven insight to today’s defining domestic policy challenges, utilizes both in-house policy experts and a broad network of outside experts, and deploys modern communications approaches to express ideas and effectively engage policymakers, thought leaders, academics, media, and the general public.

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