If you want to hear the most perfectly conventional wisdom about STEM jobs, then come and pay heed to John Lechleiter, the CEO of Lilly. He's been giving speeches and writing op-eds for some time about the issue, and he has another one out in Forbes. It's the same one. It's always the same one:
Right now, there are over 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in America.
Many employers are eager to hire. They’ve got capital set aside specifically to invest in expanding their workforce. And they have applicants — problem is, many of them simply don’t have the training and education needed to perform the work.
Largely to blame is the “STEM” skills gap, so-called after the core subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. It’s real and it’s growing. If we’re going to retain America’s greatest competitive advantage — our genius for innovation — we must inspire more kids to pursue STEM skills through education that’s engaging and effective.
It's hard to speak up against this without sounding like some sort of villain out of Charles Dickens. "Study science and math? Fah! Filling their heads with nonsense, I call it!". And I really can't argue against the idea that students should be taught these subjects, or against the idea that they certainly could be taught better than they are now. So why is Lechleiter going around saying that he's in favor of apple pie, over and over and over?
My guess is that this is only half the speech. Here's the other half, where he blames tax and immigration policy. Lilly, as is well known in the industry, has been shedding employees with relentless energy for many years now. They've offshored jobs, they've ditched whole departments and hired them back as lower-paid contractors, they've reduced head count in just about every way you can imagine short of launching people into space. But given the fix that the company's in, that's still not enough.
This history makes reading any of Lechleiter's editorials a bit hard to take. For example:
And just like other STEM-centric industries, biopharmaceutical firms face a scarcity of incoming talent. Nationally, private industry is expected to add about one million new STEM positions over the next decade. But there aren’t even enough qualified applicants to replace the Baby Boomers retiring right now.
How about the people who have been "retiring" from Eli Lilly over the past few years? How about the ones that are going to feel the recently-announced billion-dollar cutback in Lilly's R&D budget? They're going to do that without laying more people off? And that's after vast reductions have already taken place. In July 2004, the company had 45,835 employees. Now they say that they have "over 37,000", and keep in mind that they've added several thousand people just by acquisitions (i.e., not by creating new positions). So the total loss of jobs since 2004 is probably around 12,000.
And their CEO goes around talking about having trouble hiring people.