Our “Workforce” Problem

Janeway in "Workforce"


I wonder sometimes if we’re anywhere close to warp drive or First Contact. Or even to going to Mars, for that matter. It seems like there’s so much more we could be doing to explore space. While watching Voyager’s “Workforce” I had to wonder if the problem is the lack of a skilled workforce.

In “Workforce,” parts 1 and 2, the Voyager crew is kidnapped and brought to the planet Quarra to work in an industrial plant. They’ve been brainwashed to forget their lives on Voyager. The Quarren, and the other planets in the system, are suffering from a severe shortage of skilled labor. Naturally, as highly trained Starfleet officers, the crew of Voyager is in high demand.

The labor shortage in this episode made me think of similar problems in the United States, especially related to STEM jobs. There is a general lack of properly educated workers, with tech and engineering firms bringing in foreign-born employees to make up for the deficit. The number of foreign-born workers in jobs requiring advanced degrees is significant. In 2011 more than 40% of STEM PhDs awarded went to non-resident students. That same year 56% of engineering doctoral degrees were given to international students.

The numbers are even higher in Texas, where ¼ of all doctors are foreign-born, and 20% of nurses and caretakers are, too. Despite the high number of immigrant workers, in 2014 in Texas there were about 11 job openings for every 1 unemployed STEM worker.

Even at my own workplace I see it. A large percentage of our computer programmers are foreign-born, mostly from India and Nepal. We’ve had official company Diwali celebrations the last several years. (Which is awesome, and I love that my company does it.)

This doesn’t apply only to STEM fields and advanced degrees, of course. Immigrant labor is vital to agriculture, the service industry and similar fields, too. Without them, huge chunks of our economy simply wouldn’t function.

The shortage is similar across the country, and like the Quarren, we need foreign workers to fill those gaps. (Hopefully we don’t resort to brainwashing to get them, though.) The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance makes the problem even worse.

Janeway being brainwashed in "Workforce"

Current events aside, the biggest problem the U.S. has is access to higher education. The rising costs of tuition are pricing countless students out of those higher degrees. The people who suffer the most from this are, as usual, women, people of color, and the working class. If a four-year degree is beyond what most people can afford, an advanced degree in a STEM field definitely is. The Obama administration made a concerted effort encourage kids, and especially girls, to consider STEM careers. I can’t see the Trump administration doing the same.

The number of U.S. citizens graduating college has been slowly decreasing since 2011. Meanwhile, the other two largest education systems in the world, India and China, have been increasing their numbers of college graduates. Those countries definitely have their own problems with cost, access, and equality of access, but they are still producing more graduates. If this trend continues, a larger and larger percentage of our skilled labor will have to be imported.

There are deeper layers to this, too. Women and people of color face barriers getting STEM jobs. Someone with a name that is hard to pronounce or that is definitely feminine may be less likely to get an interview. In “Workforce,” at least, they were proud of the diversity of their employees. Workers are hired based on qualifications rather than their ethnicity or background.

If we don’t start correcting our course now, we may find ourselves facing a critical shortage of skilled labor. We need to push our elected representatives to make higher education affordable and accessible to everyone, regardless of race, gender, orientation, or socio-economic background. We need Captain Janeways and B’Elannas. We need people who can design, build and crew our starships so we can go explore the Delta Quadrant.

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