STEM Talent in Short Supply: Key Facts & Figures to Understand Massachusetts’ Technical Talent Shortage
June 14, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted greater public awareness of many things. It showed the importance of strong health systems and personnel to meet our healthcare needs—as well as the value of drug research in developing vaccines and life-saving therapies. We all also learned how software can revolutionize how we work, and usher in dramatic shifts like the transition to hybrid work models.
A common thread in these examples that you might have overlooked is a technically trained workforce equipped to provide the above necessities and luxuries. And the reality is that Massachusetts is nowhere near where we need to be to fill technical jobs that are in most demand—and what we will need in our future workforce. Without a more concerted effort by the governor, state legislature, and employers, the Commonwealth risks significant workforce challenges in the years ahead that will have damaging ripples throughout our economy.
The STEM Talent Shortage
At the heart of the issue, there is a significant gap between job seekers’ skills and the professional competencies needed in technically intensive roles. The skills that many of these more technical occupations require are developed through education and training in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). While many associate STEM jobs with Information Technology (IT) and engineering professions, the term encompasses occupations across many industries, including drug developers, data analysts, medical professionals, and manufacturing technicians. The central problem is that employers in industries hiring for these positions struggle to find candidates with the necessary skills. Many of the Council’s member organizations cite recruiting for these positions as their number one challenge.
How Badly are Employers Itching for Technical Talent?
According to the Commonwealth Corporation, one of Massachusetts’ main workforce agencies, in-demand STEM jobs can take up to 70 days to be filled. Data from our Technology Workforce Dashboard indicates that on average there are approximately 33,750 monthly technology job postings in Massachusetts, but only ~5,400 monthly hires for the same positions. These figures reflect a yawning gulf between the number of qualified STEM workers in the market and what employers need. And the problem is projected to get worse. Council analysis of projections from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development indicates that STEM jobs will grow by 7.2% through 2028, accounting for 40% of overall job growth over that timeframe.
You might think Massachusetts is well-positioned to meet its technical workforce needs given its national leadership in science and technology talent. After all, we have some of the best research institutions, medical centers, and universities in the world. The Council’s Talent & Workforce index on our 50-State Competitiveness Dashboard lists us firmly at #1 across indicators like the percentage of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree, and science and engineering degrees as a share of higher education degrees conferred. Massachusetts is always at the top of 50-state indices that evaluate states on their technology and innovation profiles, and we have the highest technology industry job concentration across the U.S.—1.4x the 50-state average.
So, What’s the Problem?
The short answer is: what lies ahead given current trends.
Strong technical talent is the beating heart of industries that have driven economic growth in Massachusetts for decades. Industries like biotech and software/hardware development have been stalwarts for regional economic prosperity, yielding capital investment, growth in state and local tax base, and high-earning career opportunities. Because innovation economy occupations will represent a disproportionate share of new employment needs over the next decade, a critical shortage of technical workers will make it impossible to sustain areas of our economy which have driven positive trends, generating benefits for all. In short, a technical talent shortage would compromise our economic dynamism, which is inextricably linked to our high quality of life in Massachusetts.
And it’s not just a matter of economics. Sustaining our technical workforce is key to the stability of critical institutions. Consider the world-leading medical providers in Greater Boston and their current staffing challenges. Boston hospitals have recently struggled with double digit vacancy rates in nursing and other key positions. Without adequate talent levels to keep these organizations operating smoothly, we will no doubt see an impact on availability and quality of health services.
Beyond healthcare, imagine a future where we lack key personnel for maintaining our cybersecurity infrastructure, or where companies can’t find technicians to repair our utilities grid. The systems that Massachusetts residents rely on most only function well because there are enough STEM-educated workers to build and manage them.
The STEM Talent Shortage Solution
The solution is not a simple one. It will require changes to our visa processes to reduce barriers to entry for international workers. It will take leadership in expanding opportunities for training and certification in the disciplines that produce STEM talent, like industry-ready credentials and stronger partnerships between employers and higher education institutions. This is one of the reasons that the Council supports Early College, Innovation Pathways, and other workforce developments strategies that augment the pipeline for technical talent. But current programming is not adequate to solve issues with our technical talent shortage. The one certainty is that, without more imaginative approaches and aggressive action, our inability to sustainably grow our technical workforce will mean a bleaker future for everyone in Massachusetts.