Need a Productivity Boost? It Could be Time to Hire More Scientists

Scientists and engineers aren’t just integral to a company’s R&D efforts. They can boost productivity in other areas, too, according to a growing body of research.

At the most basic level, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers are trained to understand how things work, presumably helping companies introduce new technologies to the rank and file during digital transformations.

They also are encouraged to think critically, considering alternative sources of variation that could disprove well-meaning but wayward strategy or product development decisions.

The broader usefulness of STEM workers was recently put to the test by researchers from Harvard, the U.S. Census Bureau and Norway’s Institute for Social Research.

“A plausible interpretation of the results is that scientists and engineers help implement the adoption of new technologies and products at workplaces.”

Among their joint findings, published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, were that manufacturing firms with scientists and engineers comprising 10% of their non-R&D workforce were 4.4% more productive than companies with no such employees.

“A plausible interpretation of the results is that scientists and engineers help implement the adoption of new technologies and products at workplaces,” the study’s authors concluded.

The findings chime with the results of a study conducted last year by researchers at Cleveland’s Cape Western Reserve University and New Orleans’s Tulane University. After interviewing and surveying executives in the automotive industry, they concluded that engineers outside of formal R&D roles found ways to lower costs and develop new products, often while working with customers or production staff.

“The people doing the work often don’t recognize their efforts as innovation, but rather as low-tech tinkering,” the study’s authors said. “Nonetheless, they contribute solutions that improve products and processes throughout the industry, creating significant value for their companies and their customers.”

About 80% of industrial scientists and engineers work outside of formal R&D activities, though that doesn’t mean finding the good ones will be easy.

There remains a degree of conjecture as to whether America is suffering from a STEM crisis or a STEM surplus and a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found a bit of both is occurring.

In the academic job market, for instance, it identified signs of a surplus of Ph.Ds jockeying for faculty positions in many disciplines. But in the private sector it observed a shortage of software developers, petroleum engineers, data scientists and those in skilled trades.

There was, however, an abundant supply of biomedical, chemistry, and physics Ph.Ds, while shortages of electrical engineers were more transient than long-lasting–potentially giving hiring managers plenty of talent to pick over.

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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