The Engineered Crisis

Demographer Michael Teitelbaum ’66 challenges the conventional wisdom about America’s shortage of engineers. 

By David McKay Wilson | March 1, 2014

In the mid-1990s, American corporate executives complained about the dearth of trained scientists prepared to work in U.S. industry. Undergraduate science and math majors who didn’t want to pursue a doctorate were also in a quandary—their bachelor’s degrees often lacked the depth needed to compete for those good-paying jobs.

Enter Michael Teitelbaum, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which had long supported projects at the intersection of science and the economy. He began working on an initiative to help American universities establish professional science master’s degree programs. When he started, eight universities offered such programs. Today,there are 293 PSM programs at 127 U.S. universities.  

“These programs connect students with graduate-level degrees with the demands of the workplace,” says Michael, who retired as Sloan’s vice president in 2009 and continues as senior adviser for the PSM initiative.

His success at Sloan is part of a multi-faceted career that has included teaching stints at Princeton and Oxford, serving as staff director of a Congressional committee on population, and writing eight books. At Sloan, his portfolio included providing seed funding for new fields of science, such as computational molecular biology. Those seminal studies led to development of the field of bioinformatics, which has provided the foundation for breakthroughs in pharmaceutical and genomic research. 

He also ran the Sloan Research Fellowship program, which identified outstanding junior scientists and provided grants of $50,000 to launch America’s rising stars. 

His interest in promoting the next generation of scientific minds gets fleshed out in his ninth book, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. The book, which he wrote while a Jacob Wertheim fellow at Harvard Law School, will be published this month by Princeton University Press.

Falling Behind? explores important aspects of the U.S. engineering and scientific workforce, persistent claims of labor shortages by high-tech industry executives, the difficult career experiences of recent graduates, and the impact of corporate lobbying on the debate on immigration reform in Washington, D.C.

“Employers say there’s a shortage, but many engineers and scientists are saying they can’t find a job,” says Michael, who lives in in Guilford, Connecticut, and San Francisco with his wife, Vivien Stewart, former vice president at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “If demand for scientists and engineers rises, you’ll see the employers going to Congress to lobby to allow more immigrant engineers to come here. That will keep wages from rising.”

Ralph Gomory, the former Sloan Foundation president who worked alongside Michael for more than two decades, says his latest project reflects a focus on digging deeply into issues, to discern what’s really happening in the world.

“Michael is dedicated to finding the truth, whether or not his views are popular,” says Gomory. “While there’s supposed to be a shortage of scientists and engineers, Michael is saying there’s no shortage, and that takes a certain amount of guts.”

Michael developed his thirst for knowledge at Reed and Oxford in the ’60s. 

He came to Reed after a Stanford University professor he’d studied under at a summer program for high school students touted Reed as the best West Coast school for undergraduates. When he arrived on campus, he was floored by the academic rigor. “I read in high school, but not a book and a paper a week,” he recalls. 

He fell in love with what he called Reed’s “pure academics.” He majored in sociology while taking a sizable complement of biology courses. Understanding the intersection of social and biological forces led him to graduate studies in demography—a field that views the world through an analysis of social statistics, involving such issues as  population growth or decline, fertility rates, death rates, and the impact of immigration.

Reed professors encouraged him to apply for a coveted Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, which he won. Four years later, he’d earned his doctorate in demography. He taught for four years at Princeton and then another four at Oxford, which reminded of his days at Reed, with the school’s prime focus on undergraduate education. At Oxford, he tweaked the traditional one-on-one tutorial system between professor and student to have two students meet with him weekly. 

“With two students, I could ask one to comment on the analysis of the other student,” he recalls. “We’d have a group discussion.”

His expertise brings him to conferences around the world. At a meeting in 2012 of journalists and academics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on the politics of aging, he discussed the impact of declining fertility rates, especially in nations such as Italy and Japan, where the total fertility rates are 1.2 and 1.3 percent, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. 

“If fertility declines, the distribution in the age pyramid shifts towards older age groups,” he says. “This leads to debates on what to do about education and health care, with the older group bigger users of health care, and the younger cohort bigger users of education. As the shift occurs, you expect declining education expenditures and rising spending on health care and retirement. But that’s not the way it always works because politics intervenes.”

Michael brought his demographic skills to the public sector in 1978 as staff director of the House Select Committee on Population at a time when there was concern about high fertility rates, infant child mortality, contraceptive safety, and international migration. He was surprised at the time to discover that migration accounted for about one-third of demographic change in the U.S. 

“In demography, you can’t dispute the data,” he said. “I had to educate myself.”

He continued his studies of demographic trends after joining the Sloan Foundation in 1983 and wrote books on fertility decline in Great Britain, U.S. foreign policy and Latino migration, the fear of population decline, and the impact of international migration on both international trade and national identity. 

He also was vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1991–97, which had a host of recommendations supported and rejected by Congress. In February, he was back in Washington, testifying before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about the panel’s findings, and how issues raised 15 years ago were still in need of attention today. 

Of major importance was reform to visa allocations to provide a larger share to the immediate families of legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. He’s uncertain what compromise—if any—will emerge in 2014.

“There’s an absolute cauldron of interest groups that are trying to form common cause,” he says. “The elites on the right and left are coalescing because both want an expansion of immigration. But you never know in Washington.”

Go Further

Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael S. Teitelbaum (Princeton University Press)

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