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Science and Engineering Workforce Projects

One of my principal areas of research is the science and engineering workforce. This page summarizes the work I have done on these issues, planned work in the future, and ongoing projects on the issue.


Science and Engineering Pathways in a Loosely Coupled System: An Analysis of Education and Career Trajectories

With Hal Salzman (Rutgers) and Lindsay Lowell (Georgetown) and financial support from the Sloan Foundation, I am conducting research on the educational and career pathways of science and engineering students and workers using the Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) 2008/09 longitudinal dataset. Most analyses of science and engineering educational trajectories are highly linear, emphasizes the causes of “losses” of science and engineering students, and ignore the role of science and engineering courses in the education and careers of students who don’t eventually earn science and engineering degrees. Using college transcript data, we are exploring less traditional science and engineering educational pathways. We are also using subsequent waves of the B&B  survey to understand the causes of “loose coupling” between science and engineering education and the science and engineering labor market.

High Skill Guestworkers

Also with Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell, I am currently involved in a series of research projects on high skill guestworkers, particularly the role in the U.S. information technology industry. We have published a major report with the Economic Policy Institute titled Guestworkers in the High Skill Labor Market that raises doubts about claims that guestworkers are required to address labor shortages. We are preparing additional shorter research pieces through the Economic Policy Institute on the same subject. We are currently analyzing microdata from the H-1B visa program and the OPT STEM extension visa program for future publication.

Occupational Choice and the Option Value of a STEM Degree (Dissertation Essay)

A recent literature suggests that students benefit from enrolling in college if the returns to a degree are uncertain in part because enrollment allows them to retain the option of graduating as they gather more information about their own abilities and potential payoffs. This option value of enrollment helps to explain why so many students choose to enroll and subsequently drop out of college. This essay considers the relevance of option value to the problem of occupational and major choice. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations are generally well paid, socially prestigious, and intellectually gratifying. However, success in these occupations is highly uncertain and most STEM majors will never actually work in STEM occupations. A potential explanation of the decision to major in a STEM field despite the low probability of working in a STEM field is that a STEM major provides students with the option of pursuing a job in this field. This option would essentially be unavailable without a STEM degree. Option value provides a link between major choices and occupational choices and helps to explain major choices that often have a weak correlation with subsequent occupational choice. This essay will develop a model of the major and occupational choice where the option value of having a major in a field with limited job opportunities causes students to rationally major in a field at a higher rate than job opportunities are available in that field. The 2008 Baccalaureate and Beyond survey will be used to estimate the option value associated with obtaining a STEM degree.

Infometrics Institute Summer Fellowship Research on Grade Inflation and STEM Majors (Summer 2013)

The economic literature on grade inflation has primarily been concerned with the biased representation of student ability and the impact on student major choices. However, the studies to date are not completely satisfactory if we expect agents operating in the labor market to behave rationally. The problem of grade inflation is common knowledge, so why wouldn’t employers, students, and teachers simply adjust their expectations by an appropriate expected grade inflation factor before making their decisions? An information theoretic approach to grade inflation is potentially more fruitful. From the perspective of information theory, the critical point is not that grades are being inflated over time (agents can adjust for inflation), but that they are also being compressed due to truncation in the grading scale. This implies that grade inflation not only changes the central tendency of the grade distribution; it also reduces the entropy of grades. When employers and graduate school admissions committees review college transcripts they are interested in extracting compressed information about the student’s abilities. Additional compression as a result of grade inflation degrades this information further.

I propose an investigation of the relative entropy of grades by college major, its impact on student and employer choices and the determination of wages inside and outside one’s field. I will use the 2008/2009 Baccalaureate and Beyond survey (I already have the data), which includes college transcript data for approximately 15,000 American students who graduated in the 2008/2009 academic year. Fields of study with high entropy in grade distributions should be associated with wider dispersion in starting wages, lower labor market churning, and slower wage growth over time (because there is less to be learned about student ability due to the higher information content of grades). Fields of study with lower entropy grade distributions should have lower starting wages and less wage dispersion, but potentially more churning between jobs and wage growth over time as student abilities are learned by employers on the job. My preliminary review of the literature on grade inflation suggests that an information theoretic approach to the problem would be an original contribution. The only comparable analysis I have found is an unpublished memo by a computer science professor discussing the possibility of an information theoretic approach to understanding grade inflation.

Constructing college pathways: Grades, course stocks, and student science and engineering course choice (Spring 2013 term paper, currently being prepared for submission) 

This paper models science and engineering course enrollment decisions as a function of grades and accumulated science and engineering credits (in the fields of computer science, engineering, life sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences). It differs from similar studies in its focus on the sequential decision making that leads to a major in a science or engineering field, and in its focus on factors that change and influence student behavior from semester to semester. This is distinct from the major choice literature, which only investigates the outcome of the course enrollment process (a degree) as a function of factors that are relatively time invariant (economic returns and preferences). Cross sectional and time series hurdle models suggest that grades are a factor in determining course enrollment, but that the positive cross-sectional association between a student’s accumulated stock of credits and their subsequent course taking behavior is spurious and driven by time-invariant factors. If anything, the relationship between accumulated credits and enrollment is negative.

Gender Disparities in Science and Engineering as a Growth Constraint (Spring 2013 term paper, currently being prepared for submission)

Occupational segregation by gender permeates advanced and developing economies alike and remains the subject of considerable research by economists, particularly feminist economists. Labor market disparities are a problem even in relatively elite occupations like science and engineering, where one might expect social pressure against overt or institutional gender discrimination to be stronger. Most of the literature on gender discrimination in science and engineering occupations has treated the problem from the perspective of labor market discrimination, largely ignoring its general equilibrium ramifications. Drawing on the endogenous growth literature, this paper considers gender disparities in the science and engineering workforce in particular as a growth constraint.

I will first consider an endogenous growth model similar to Romer (1990), where gender disparities in the scientific labor market reduce the growth rate. This mainstream model is contrasted with other efforts to engender macroeconomic analysis along more heterodox lines. The model predicts that increasing female representation in science and engineering can reduce growth if productivity disparities between men and women (presumably due to differential provisioning by gender or cultural constraints on women in scientific circles) are not remedied. This leads naturally into a discussion of the extant literature on labor market disparities between male and female scientists as well as an empirical investigation of productivity disparities.

NBER Book on Engineers in the Global Economy

I am a co-author on two chapters in a forthcoming NBER book on the engineering workforce. The book is co-edited by Richard Freeman (Harvard) and Hal Salzman (Rutgers), and includes contributors from economics, management, public policy, and engineering. I am the first author of the first chapter of the volume, which provides background on trends in the engineering workforce over the last thirty years. It covers varying sources of demand for engineers (including demand across industries, by government, demand for engineers as managers, and replacement demand), the supply of new engineers by universities, and  the adjustment of university engineering programs to variations in labor market conditions. I am the third author of a chapter looking at recent developments in the market for petroleum engineers, where a variety of recent demand shocks have provided a natural experiment that is useful for understanding how high skill labor markets function. Firms respond to the demand shock by raising salaries, which has attracted students to the field of petroleum engineering. The response of the petroleum engineering labor market to demand shocks raises doubts about worries around persistent high skill labor shortages.

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