A high-profile push by business groups to double the number of U.S. bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States in science, math, and engineering by 2015 is falling way behind target, a new report says.

In 2005, 15 prominent business groups warned that a lack of expert workers and teachers posed a threat to U.S. competitiveness and said the country would need 400,000 new graduates in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields by 2015.

In an update published July 15, the group reports the number of degrees in those fields rose slightly earlier in the decade, citing figures from the years after 2001 that have become available since the first report was published. But the number of degrees has since flattened out at around 225,000 per year.

The coalition, representing groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Defense Industrial Association, said there has been substantial bipartisan support in Washington for boosting science training, including passage last year of the "America Competes Act," which promotes math and science.

But Susan Traiman, director of education and work force policy for the Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate CEOs, said there’s been insufficient follow-through with funding to support the programs. Other countries, she said, are doing more to shift incentives toward science training.

"The concern that CEOs have is if we wait for a Sputnik-like event, it’s very hard to turn around and get moving on the kind of timeline we would need," said Traiman, referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, which prompted a massive U.S. commitment to science investment.

"It still takes a minimum of 17 years to produce an engineer, if you consider K-12 plus four years of colleges," she said.

Some critics have called concerns from business about the number of science graduates overblown and self-serving. They have argued that if there really were a pent-up demand for scientists, more students would naturally move toward those fields without massive incentives from taxpayers.

But William Green, CEO and chairman of Accenture, a giant global consulting company, called such criticisms "nonsense," adding the whole country benefits from competitive companies.

"This is on the top three CEO agendas of every company I know," Green told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Green said Accenture, which will hire about 58,000 people worldwide this year, will spend $780 million on training.

"I feel like I can step up to the table and say I’m doing my part. Other companies are doing the same thing," Green said. "What I’m suggesting is I really could use more raw material. That’s about having federal leadership."

Elsewhere in the world, he sees "a laser focus," both in the public and private sectors, on developing work forces for competitive companies.

The report, by the group Tapping America’s Potential, which has grown to represent 16 business groups, also argues that the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has hurt U.S. competitiveness by making it difficult to retain high-skill workers who study at American universities.

Although there appears to be, if anything, a surplus in the job market of scientists with doctoral degrees, the case for boosting bachelor’s degrees is stronger–especially for people who go into teaching, where teachers who have college-level subject training are generally more effective.

Last week, the National Research Council–a group that provides policy advice under a congressional charter–issued a report calling for more support for professional master’s degrees programs. The idea would be to provide advanced training to more people in fields such as chemistry and biology, which require less time and money than doctoral degrees.

Links:

Tapping America’s Potential

National Research Council