Monday, December 2, 2013

The Higher Ed STEM Myth

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath, he repeats the following common claim: “At a time when students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find jobs, students with STEM degrees are almost assured of good careers.” The only problem with this idea is that it is at best misleading and possibly completely false. Looking at recent labor data and multiple research studies, it appears that at the very moment the Obama administration and most state officials are pushing for a rapid increase in students holding college degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, most jobs in these areas have faced stagnant wages and decreased job opportunities.

According to the article, “The STEM Crisis is a Myth”, “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. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.”  In face of this decrease in STEM-related job opportunities, we are reminded that, “President Obama has called for government and industry to train 10,000 new U.S. engineers every year as well as 100,000 additional STEM teachers by 2020. And until those new recruits enter the workforce, tech companies like Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are lobbying to boost the number of H-1B visas—temporary immigration permits for skilled workers—from 65,000 per year to as many as 180,000.”  In other words, high-tech companies are pushing for increased access to high-skilled foreign workers in order to drive down labor costs and produce a more competitive labor market.  Meanwhile, government officials are calling for a massive increase in funding to educate people for jobs that do not exist.

One of the major reasons why the government seems to have it all wrong is the way STEM jobs are defined: “According to Commerce, 7.6 million individuals worked in STEM jobs in 2010, or about 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce. That number includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences as well as management. The NSF, by contrast, counts 12.4 million science and engineering jobs in the United States, including a number of areas that the Commerce Department excludes, such as health-care workers (4.3 million) and psychologists and social scientists (518,000).”  The first problem is then the US government itself has conflicting ways of defining who is working in a STEM job, and thus the National Science Foundation is able to call for more STEM funding by including in its ranks, healthcare workers, psychologists, and social scientists.  However, if we look at the more traditional understanding of STEM jobs, which is used by the Commerce Department, only 5.5% of all current US jobs fall into this area. 
Not only is the STEM crisis being pushed by bad data and loose definitions, but it is also being fueled by a massive misunderstanding regarding the relationship between college degrees and future employment: “Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees. Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them—11.4 million—work outside of STEM.” Thus, not only are there limited employment opportunities in the STEM areas, but most of the people with STEM degrees do not work in STEM jobs, and most of the people working in STEM jobs do not have STEM degrees. This mismatch between degrees and jobs means that there is not a pressing need to produce more people with STEM degrees, and non-STEM degree holders often end up being employed in STEM jobs. 
One reason why the STEM labor market is hard to predict and plan for is because of the business and labor practices dominating these areas: “Highly competitive science- and technology-driven industries are volatile, where radical restructurings and boom-and-bust cycles have been the norm for decades. Many STEM jobs today are also targets for outsourcing or replacement by automation.” It turns out that the celebrated jobs in the STEM areas are highly susceptible to downsizing, outsourcing, and boom-and-bust business cycles. 
The unstable nature of STEM jobs is matched by the short-term thinking of many high-tech companies: “In engineering, for instance, your job is no longer linked to a company but to a funded project. Long-term employment with a single company has been replaced by a series of de facto temporary positions that can quickly end when a project ends or the market shifts. To be sure, engineers in the 1950s were sometimes laid off during recessions, but they expected to be hired back when the economy picked up. That rarely happens today. And unlike in decades past, employers seldom offer generous education and training benefits to engineers to keep them current, so out-of-work engineers find they quickly become technologically obsolete.” Like so many other fields and professions, the older model of career employment has been replaced by a new system of just-in-time flexible labor, which in turn, reduces the opportunity for job advancement since companies do not want to invest in workers who have no future with their corporations.
Like the employment practices in higher education, wages in the STEM areas are being pushed down by an over-supply of future workers and an under-supply of new good jobs: “if you apply the Commerce Department’s definition of STEM to the NSF’s annual count of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, that means about 252,000 STEM graduates emerged in 2009. So even if all the STEM openings were entry-level positions and even if only new STEM bachelor’s holders could compete for them, that still leaves 70,000 graduates unable to get a job in their chosen field. Of course, the pool of U.S. STEM workers is much bigger than that: It includes new STEM master’s and Ph.D. graduates (in 2009, around 80 000 and 25 000, respectively), STEM associate degree graduates (about 40 000), H-1B visa holders (more than 50 000), other immigrants and visa holders with STEM degrees, technical certificate holders, and non-STEM degree recipients looking to find STEM-related work. And then there’s the vast number of STEM degree holders who graduated in previous years or decades.”  If you work at a university and college, this story should be very familiar; in the face of decreased job opportunities, colleges continue to flood the market with new workers, which then functions to drive down wages and create a class of underemployed and unemployed degree-holders.  


  1. Your numbers in the last paragraph don't make sense. You count a person as unable to get a job at BS, MS, and PhD levels, but they should only be counted once (either all at the BS level or only once they actually leave school). As a result, your numbers end up about 505 too high for new job seekers.

    That said, the boom-and-bust cycle for STEM workers is a real phenomenon, and has been since the late 60s.

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