How Real Is Our Shortage of Scientific Manpower?

Sept. 1, 1958

Since Sputnik there has been an outpouring of comment and complaint on what has been described as our national shortage of scientists and engineers. We have been warned that the United States faces serious consequences, possible the loss of technological parity with the Soviet Union, if we fail to make the most of our resources of talented people.

Yet, at the same time the country is in an economic recession, and in some communities engineers have lost their jobs along with other workers. And, generally demand has declined for both graduating engineers and those with some work experience under their belts.

How can these two seemingly opposite situations exist? Is there really a shortage of scientific manpower? Or is poor planning and utilization creating an artificial shortage

Let’s examine the present needs for scientists and engineers. What are the requirements of industrial, institutional, and governmental employers? The irony is: no one really knows. There is a dearth of solid facts in this area, which is a real handicap. And to complicate matters, we are dealing with a rapidly changing situation. Employers who were laying off engineers a few months ago are now running big ads in the New York Times for the same kind of professional people. Demands change from day to day. Employers establish some jobs and abolish others, government agencies inaugurate, expand, or curtail programs; jobs are created by, or changed by, developments in our technology. Not only is the situation changing rapidly and presenting the statistician with a moving target, but every job contains a varying amount of professional duties.

If we concentrated the professional duties in fewer positions by “job engineering,” would fewer professional people be needed? And what about jobs for which is useful but perhaps not vital to have a fully qualified technical man? Is a “sales engineer” a salesman or an engineer? Even if we could add up all the jobs, occupied and vacant, for a picture of the total market demand, there would still be a question whether the demand for such people represented actual current needs. Too often employers hire scientists and engineers to acquire or retain a “technical capability” necessary to secure government contracts. They have been known to “stockpile” professional people who are unneeded at the moment for later transfer to new activities where they can be used.

Again complicating matters is the diversionary demand created by military service requirements for graduating college seniors. The strong possibility of draft military tours, which the Selective Service Act creates, pushes many technical college students into ROTC with an active-duty tour on graduation. Yet many engineering and science graduates take Air Force flight training when they should be in strictly technical fields. And for those who do go into technical assignments, fluctuating vacancies often working as a supply officer. On his departure from active duty, such a technical graduate is three years out of touch with his profession.

In the absence of really reliable data on needs from employer sources, the best evidence of need is the recruiting activity conducted by employers. During the past year, budget reductions, expenditure slowdowns, project cancellations, and the recession have noticeably affected the evidences of labor market demand for professional personnel. Ads for scientists and engineers use of employment service facilities, and visits by recruiting representatives, tough currently reviving, have been sharply curtailed. Reports from the campuses reveal the industry representatives held the reins at the year’s interviews and made the selections, reversing the situation of a year ago when the students conducted the interviews and doing the choosing. Yet for graduating scientists and engineers there were still plenty of jobs, and only those student with marginal academic records experienced difficulty. Although defense slowdowns somewhat curtailed opportunities for experienced professionals for a time, a glance at the help-wanted columns of your Sunday newspaper attests to the revived demands created by releases of defense funds.

Right now, despite current economic conditions, the demand still seems to exceed the supply for these kinds of people. Revival of the economy will further stimulate demand.

There is evidence, too, of an imbalance in the distribution of research and development talent in industry. Large companies with forty percent of the total employees have sixty percent of the scientists and engineers and do seventy percent of the R&D in terms of monetary cost. Many companies, which at present do not perform or subsidize such activities are likely to be faced with a problem of survival unless they equip themselves to compete with more advanced, better quality, and lower cost products which their competitors may market. The expanding national level of R&D expenditures, and their persistence despite the recession, may reflect to some extent recognition by these companies of their problem.

At present, and for years to come, a large proportion of the national expenditure for R&D will be for the requirements of national security. This leads to a concentration of scientific talent in the defense sector of our economy. Moreover, committees of eminent citizens have pointed out serious deficiencies in our national security programs, which would require federal expenditures to be stepped up sharply by billions of dollars to secure the solutions for extremely difficult technical problems. Although the Administration shows little evidence of action of the scope recommended, defense expenditures are nevertheless rising and are unlikely to level off for many years. Thus, we can expect increasing demands upon our already short supply of technical talent before long-term programs to increase the supply are productive.

Further needs will arise in proportion to our response to the Communist economic and cultural competition. Economic and technical assistance to former colonial countries and knowledgeable competition in the trade of goods and ideas are going to require a good supply of not only technical people but experts in the arts and humanities too, both here and overseas.

What does all this add up to? Just that as there exists an undefined and fluctuating situation with respect to demand for these professionals, there also exists a similar situation with respect to the supply of these people. One complication, already partially cited above, that blurs the picture is that many technical people — in their jobs — really do not perform technical function. Advancement avenues take a man from technical work into managerial posts. A number of companies stress that they are “engineers’ companies,” implying that they are run by and with consideration of the needs of engineers, but also implying that engineers many be performing many of the non-technical jobs. Non-engineering positions for which engineering degrees are required are frequently to be seen in the classified advertisements. Technical background is frequently required for positions in manufacturing, sales, purchasing, and others.

So, it turns out that people who call themselves engineers may be upgrading their true status in the same way a bookkeeper calls himself an accountant. Or they may merely be reflecting the breadth of the dictionary definition of engineering occupations. Thus, census figures of the numbers of those employees as “engineers” significantly exceed any reasonable estimate of the real number of employed professional engineers based on the output of institutions granting engineering degrees. So we get a confused statistical picture of supply.

Also, many people without full professional training perform a narrow range of fully professional duties. Others with professional training are utilized in sub-professional jobs, which demand less than their full professional skills, leading through disuse to the loss of such skills.

People in many of these semi-engineering assignments are not truly part of our technical personnel reserve. Yet, the superior rewards and job-to-job progression in industrial management and sales, the investment o y ears in other career areas, in the case of many technically educated Air Force officers, argue against any significant voluntary flow toward fully technical “bench” jobs in science or engineering. If the rewards were high enough, many both in government and industry would “return to the bench” in the laboratories. But to do this, management would have to accept education, which was obsolescent, and men who had passed the normal peak years of creativity. But there is no such trend. Despite high entrance rates of pay for beginners, management is not generally increasing the pay scales of experienced technical people proportionately. In response there has been a significant trend toward the organization of engineers for collective bargaining purposes. It is unlikely that a significant number of professional people cold be secured in peacetime by “reclamation” programs even if these programs were completely desirable.

Regardless if whether we can ever get a true picture of supply and demand, what we have to do is to educate more and to better use what we have now. Because scientific and engineering manpower is a “long lead-time item,” proposals for college scholarships, aids to science teaching, federal aid to education, and stimulation of science interest in the young cannot be of much help for the needs of the next few years. The value of such measures must be determined by their suitability to the long-term needs of our society. Some 3,000 high school graduating seniors capable of college work do not go on to college for lack of means or motivation. Yet, if mans and motivation were provided, those who went to college would not become part of the resource of professional manpower until 1962. In talking about improving our high schools for today’s bright eighth graders, we are talking about 1966-1969 recruits to the learned professions.

In the May ’57 issue of Air Force, AFA President Peter J. Schenk, in an article entitled “More Mileage from Our Engineers,” made an eloquent plea for American management to take some straightforward steps to increase our immediate effective supply of engineers by giving them more non-professional assistants and by removing non-technical tasks from their jobs; by improving their physical working conditions to make thinking possible; by improving career prospects and pay for experience. To these he added the more difficult steps of better organization, better planning, and better decision making. I should like to suggest some additional areas for management consideration in establishing programs for maximum utilization of these resources:

• Top management, in private industry or government, should recognize the problem and make it a definite part of the job of a key official to plan and organize activities for better management and utilization of scientist and engineer resources.

• Management should give close attention to the “environment” in which technical work is performed to assure successful performance of the technical mission. The methods used in supplying men, money, and materials to technical laboratories should be designed for maximum service and minimum administrative burdens. Administration should not be allowed to become an end in itself, nor should procedures applicable to non-research and development activities be necessarily applied to R&D in a desired for organization-wide uniformity.

• Management policies should stimulate the professional communication, which is the lifeblood of scientific work. Technical papers and reports, professional correspondence and meetings, libraries and documentation can ease the road of progress. The more the searcher knows of what others in his field are doing, the more likely he is to come up with new findings. Otherwise there is a real danger of duplication of effort and loss of stimulus.

• Supervisors responsible for guiding the work of their team members should also be assigned responsibility for guiding their professional growth. Advanced education, publication of professional papers, participation in professional societies and meetings, professional attitudes and standards should be encouraged by the employer. Management should stimulate such growth by bringing to the laboratory or plant, graduate courses, seminars, lectures, professional meetings, consultants, graduate students, etc.

• Professional societies should be encouraged and supported. They develop and maintain professional standards and communications. Their journals are the principal medium for the dissemination of scientific papers but are currently experiencing difficulty in publishing promptly the expanded output of such papers. They need support from the industrial corporations and government agencies.

Now what about long-term needs

There has been a constant growth in our need for scientists and engineers. Whereas industry employed one engineer per 250 employees in 1900, in 1950 this ratio was one per fifty employees. By 1975 the ratio is expected to be one per twenty. Scientist demands, though smaller, are expanding with equal rapidity. These trends apply equally to government and private organizations. Even if there were no cold war, developments in energy sources, nucleonic, communication, health, materials, automation, data-processing which must be designed and guided by the professionally trained. The possibilities of unlimited energy from nuclear fusion and unlimited food from synthetic photosynthesis, the conquest of disease and aging are no longer impractical dreams.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of our future need is that of the quality of talent, which will be required. Great advances come from the theoretical insights of a very few individuals. Only by assuring that all bright children have ample opportunity and stimulus to progress as rapidly and as far as their talents and interests take them can we be confident that great scientific leaders will come to the fore. To foster the development of great mends and those needed to assist them in the exploitation of their discoveries, we must provide opportunities for the full development of the latent talents of all of those in our population capable of intellectual effort.

Not only must we make changes in our educational opportunities but we must change governmental and industrial policies to provide: long-term management and fiscal support for a stable high level of technical activity, especially in basic research; substantial profit incentives for industrial firms to engage in research and exploratory development as such, regardless of “hardware” manufacturing; and positive tax encouragement for scientific and technological growth. These are important means of providing some of the economic bases for the effort needed by our society and the resulting jobs and careers for the output of stepped-up educational programs. They will also provide encouragement for the support of basic research, which, although a contributor to tomorrow’s products and weapons, is at a disadvantage in competing for today’s dollars against today’s dividends or military operational capability.

In planning for the future we should bear in mind that the great challenges are not limited to the fields of science and technology. We face the explosive forces of poverty, anti-colonialism, nationalism, economic competition, as well as Communist imperialism, which will require the best sociologist, economists, psychologist, diplomats, and others whom we can develop. Let us also remember that the great technical discoveries will be meaningless unless they can be applied to great purposes.

Scientists and engineers cannot alone relate their findings to social purposes. The latter must come, in large degree, from the philosophers; the social scientists, the clergy, and those skilled in the arts of government to assure the translation of great discoveries not only to a high standard of living but, more important, to the growth and dignity of the human spirit.

About the Author

A long-time student of management, Mr. Hardin has served ARDC as Chief of the Personnel Plans and Policy Division where he had an opportunity to study in depth the complicated problems of utilizing our scientific manpower.