Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson Warns of Quiet Crisis in Science and Technology Hiring

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

While the national unemployment rate remains at a steep 9.7%, the U.S. still has an alarming shortage of science and technology professionals, warns noted physicist and college president Shirley Ann Jackson in a BigThink video post on Monday.

Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame, raised a red flag about the gap between the 4.2% annual growth in science and technology jobs in the U.S., and the 1.5% growth in qualified U.S.-born workers to fill those positions.

A Quiet Crisis Is Creeping Upon Us

It's a "quiet crisis" that's creeping up on us unnoticed because of the long time-frames involved, and we've filled the gap up until now with foreign-born workers, says Jackson, who was the first African-American woman to graduate with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Other countries are learning from the U.S. model and are building up their research infrastructure, so bright students will increasingly stay home or return there after graduate school in the U.S. And the "global race for talent" means that even foreign students who leave home won't necessarily settle here but may go to some other country, Jackson says.

With Jackson sounding the alarm, it may give greater weight to all the technology CEOs who have traveled to Washington to state their concern about a lack of qualified candidates to fill their technology job pool. Their answer to this problem, however, is to ask Congress to loosen the cap on the number of H-1B visas that allow foreign workers into the country. Microsoft's (MSFT) founder Bill Gates, for one, has been a strong advocate in the past for boosting the H-1B visa limits.

It Takes Years to Train Engineers

While the shortage is clearly here and now, Jackson provides an even more troubling forecast, noting that as America's large baby boomer population ages and people "quietly retire," folks won't be truly aware of how bad the situation is until it is right upon them. "We don't see the real underlying trend for years. But also, it takes a long time to create a high-functioning theoretical physicist or nuclear engineer."

And consider that some of America's most popular consumer electronic devices from Apple (AAPL) or (AMZN) or Microsoft depended on investment in scientific education and research made decades ago, Jackson points out. "A lot of the technologies that we take for granted and where a lot of the cool things come from -- whether we're talking iPods or iPads or Kindles or X-Boxes -- really are built on technologies that were developed 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, and discoveries that were made that long ago."