The difficulty of filling STEM jobs is a challenge, and it's going to get worse.
That's the assessment of a report published this month.
Across a range of industries and occupations, jobs for STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) openings are being advertised on employers' web pages far longer than for non-STEM jobs, according a study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
"That's 100-percent correct," said Cynthia Smith, recruitment manager at the University of Kansas Hospital. "It's never been easy to find qualified people for specialized STEM positions.
"Those jobs have a tendency to take up to 12 weeks to fill, if not a year."
The Brookings analysis found that STEM openings nationally are advertised for more than twice as long as all other types of jobs.
And sometimes, Smith noted, the jobs have to be re-posted because initial offers are turned down. The hospital, for example, recently spent seven months and made three offers to fill a very specific cytogenetics laboratory position.
The Brookings report concluded there is a dearth of applicants who meet advertised STEM qualifications. Other analysts suggest the hiring problems are worsened because employers look for "perfect" candidates instead of training workers who bring other qualities to the table and could do the work.
Brookings associate fellow Jonathan Rothwell, the study's author, said comparative Great Recession-era and post-Great Recession data tend to disprove the pickiness argument.
"STEM hiring difficulty fell during the recession," Rothwell said. "Presumably, that was because employers were getting more qualified applicants.
"It's basic Economics 101. The supply of qualified workers was higher during the recession."
There's also a national debate about whether U.S. schools are turning out enough qualified workers. Some reports contend there are plenty of STEM graduates for available jobs.
But in most human resource circles, the view leans to there being an inadequate supply of skilled applicants. Recruiters' experiences endorse studies that detail the global competition for STEM talent. Those studies tend to note that it's not just traditional high-tech or science companies competing for the workers. It's just about every employer who needs some kind of computer or high-skill training on staff.
An Adecco consulting report says 75 percent of the fastest-growing occupations require significant math or science training. Thus, the competition for such workers is tougher. And the Brookings report contends the supply of workers has not kept up with demand.
"It's convincing data across millions of jobs and hundreds of companies," Rothwell said.
"Employers, especially in engineering, tell me they're constantly looking," agreed Laura Loyacomo, director of the KC STEM Alliance, a nonprofit organization that encourages STEM education. "They say they have to use H-1B immigrant work visas because they can't find enough U.S. workers. They'd rather hire regionally," because it's easier to keep workers who don't have limited work permits.
Rothwell, the Brookings author, said data show that H-1B hiring is not employers' first choice, particularly given that the work visas are temporary.
If there's any comfort in the difficulty, it is that it's a national problem that stretches across STEM employers.
The Brookings report found that specialized computer skills, despite having high salary offers, had the longest advertised times among all major occupation groups.
"Employers advertised 255 distinct computer skills in at least 500 job openings for an average of at least 40 to 71 days on their websites," the report summarized.
Meanwhile, the shortage of STEM-skilled workers is having a ripple effect throughout the economy. As employers have to pay ever-higher salaries to get and keep STEM talent, it widens the earnings gap between STEM and non-STEM workers, the Brookings study noted.
And that, Rothwell said, "exacerbates income inequality across all demographic groups."