Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Is the STEM crisis a myth?

For those that have been reading for awhile, you know that education is a bit of an obsession of mine.  I know that this can be a dry subject for many so accept my apologies ahead of time because today we're talking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math).

The current mantra around the country is a simple one - the jobs of tomorrow will require a greater understanding of STEM.  Countries around the globe are crushing our kids in these subjects (here, I'd argue that we have geographic pockets of strength that are equal to or exceed these countries performance - Northeast suburbs, VA/MD, pockets in California/Washington, etc).  President Obama has frequently cited a report that says we will have a need for another 1,000,000 STEM graduates in the next decade.  Personally, I've sat in on meetings at the local and state level to work on increasing the number of students pursuing careers in STEM.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I read an article yesterday that basically says the whole crisis in STEM is a myth.  I'm always looking for opinions that sit outside of the general consensus because those ideas are often the most accurate in the long run.  When someone says the crisis in STEM is a myth that should get our attention.

From the article "And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000."

Additionally, the author cited a rather stunning statistic that 2 years after graduation 20% of STEM graduates are working in non-STEM related fields and that number grows to 58% after 10 years.
The author also points out (accurately, I'd add) that the most often cited study on the need for STEM workers over the next decade was based on a study from 2009 that did not project the depth and severity of the Great Recession.  This survey assumed we'd be back to adding normal jobs numbers fairly quickly post-recession when in fact we continued to lose jobs in the STEM field well into 2011.

Finally, we get into the conversation that scares anyone with a 20 year time horizon - automation.  No longer are toll takers and cashiers the only ones that have to worry about being replaced by technology.  The move to automation is moving into the legal, accounting/finance, science and technology fields.  This is dramatically increasing efficiency but it has the potential of eliminating hundreds of thousands if not millions of high wage jobs from the STEM fields.

Using data from 2009, it seems like the US produces roughly 180,000 jobs/year in STEM related fields and has roughly 250,000 STEM graduates from our colleges every year.  This means that nearly 30% of STEM graduates every year won't find work in their chosen field (seems to mesh with an earlier stat which said 20% of STEM grads aren't working in STEM 2 years after graduation).

The author of the study loses me a bit when he starts to argue that the push for increased STEM education is part of some grand plan by corporate interest to suppress wages of STEM workers (though engineers do seem to lag the general market in wage growth, their starting wages are higher than many other careers).

I do agree with this idea - "Emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines carries other risks. Without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow their worldview—and their career options. In a 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, argued that point. “In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80 000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers,” he wrote. “But the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.

That brings me to what I hear most consistently from employers - there are plenty of qualified applicants for most jobs in STEM, but there are very few standout candidates.

Overall, this was an interesting argument against something that we all just assume to be true and it made me question many of my assumptions about the future of STEM education. I still believe that a strong foundation in STEM will serve our students well, but it may be that the need for STEM graduates from colleges and universities has been overstated and maybe we should consider adjusting our policies accordingly.


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