Emerging technologies—including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science and technology (QIST), and biotechnology—will transform people’s lives and work worldwide. Existing studies consider how technological advances could reshape the workplace, including substituting labor with machines, moving labor into complementary tasks, and enabling new ways to access labor.1 This paper examines a lesser studied but equally important aspect of the intersection between technology and work: Does the United States have the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent to win the global competition to build, scale, and commercialize emerging technologies? And are current methods of developing and accessing STEM talent sufficient to meet workforce demands?
The possible strategic advantages of emerging technologies are numerous and significant. They promise to deliver lucrative breakthroughs in various industries, from medicine and agriculture to automotive and clean energy. At the same time, countries could leverage emerging technologies to build new weapons systems, bolster intelligence and surveillance tools, or crack an adversary’s encryption methods. Given their tremendous economic and national security potential, emerging technologies have become central to U.S.-China competition. The country that leads in the development and implementation of emerging technologies will possess a set of capabilities that can overwhelm unprepared adversaries. The global technology leader will also gain the upper hand in establishing market dominance and setting technology standards. Access to STEM talent is one key factor determining which country prevails in the technology battle.
The STEM workforce—defined here as individuals from all education levels working in science and engineering occupations—is integral to a country’s innovation potential and technology competitiveness.2 A robust and skilled pipeline of STEM talent is a crucial component of continued technological progress. It also plays a key role in harnessing emerging technologies’ positive potential while mitigating risks.
This paper evaluates the state of U.S. STEM education and the demand for and availability of STEM talent in three critical technology areas: QIST, semiconductors, and critical minerals. Though U.S. education policy and reform are not the focus of this paper, a broad assessment of the quality and accessibility of STEM education sheds light on U.S. preparedness to build and sustain a pipeline of future STEM talent. An evaluation of the demand for and availability of STEM talent in specific critical technology areas helps clarify the health of the STEM workforce today. The QIST, semiconductor, and critical mineral industries were selected as case studies because they are significant to U.S. national security and encompass a broad range of STEM positions requiring various levels of prior training and education—from no degree requirements to PhD-level expertise.3 They can thus illuminate the breadth and gravity of U.S. STEM talent challenges.
Access to STEM talent is one key factor determining which country prevails in the technology battle.
The paper finds that the United States has concerning gaps in its STEM talent pool. Further, a comparison of U.S. and Chinese human capital opportunities and constraints reveals that heightened global competition for STEM talent threatens to undermine the positive impact of the United States’ historic human capital advantages, including its large population size, diversity, and research openness. Absent intervention, the United States risks falling behind China and other competitors in the quest to train, recruit, and retain STEM talent.
The STEM talent gaps and opportunities brought to light here are not revolutionary. The private sector, academia, and government have already initiated several promising efforts to cultivate a more robust and skilled U.S. STEM workforce. The United States can remedy its STEM workforce pitfalls and ensure its technology competitiveness by developing assessment frameworks for grassroots programs and implementing processes to replicate and scale the successful ones. It is not too late for the United States to refine its STEM preeminence, but the onus is on key stakeholders to cultivate a STEM-capable workforce.
This is an excerpt from a report published by Center for a New American Security. Read the full publication here.