Monday, September 30, 2013

The Mythological STEM Crisis

What I'm about to write is considered rank heresy in some circles.  But at least one prominent expert has taken a similar position, and he has backed it up with extensive research.  So here goes.

If you have spent any time in engineering education, either as a student or instructor, you have probably heard about the alleged "STEM crisis."  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, and is the umbrella acronym for a range of academic subjects that (a) are obviously essential to the continuation of modern life as we know it and (b) are not mastered by enough students each year to ensure such continuation, at least in the U. S.  That is the story, anyway:  that we are teetering on the edge of a disaster in which our economy will crash and our technology will stagnate for lack of enough young people able to do science, technology, engineering, and math.

In a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, a publication of the world's largest professional organization for engineers, author Robert Charette took issue with this claim, which he calls a "myth."  Why a myth?

A myth isn't a lie, exactly.  It's a story that may have elements of truth in it, but isn't necessarily wholly and literally true.  Nevertheless, there is usually a group of people who have a strong reason to believe in the myth, and repeat it over and over until belief in the myth spreads among the general population.  

Charette finds that, depending on your definition of what a STEM education or a STEM job is exactly, that many people holding STEM jobs do not have a bachelor's degree in STEM, or necessarily a college degree at all.  On the other hand, if you look at the pool of all graduates of STEM programs, most of them are currently working in fields other than STEM ones.  So it doesn't look like you necessarily need a STEM degree to get a STEM job.  And if you do get a STEM degree, unless you're lucky you are liable to end up in a non-STEM job anyway.

Anecdotes aren't statistics, but they make situations seem more real.  A student of mine graduated from my university a few years ago with a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering.  After an unsuccessful spring and summer looking for a technical job, he returned to school, attended another couple of years or so, and obtained his second B. S. degree, this time in electrical engineering.  Even with two STEM B. S. degrees, it took him over a year of looking before he finally found an engineering job last summer. 

If the STEM crisis was as severe as some would have us believe, people like my student would be snapped up before they graduate.  And average starting salaries in engineering would show a steady increase above average wages for as long as the crisis endured.  Neither of these things is the case, however. 

While some engineering students get jobs before they graduate with B. S. degrees, others, like the student I mentioned, have a lot of trouble finding suitable work.  And Charette notes that while average wages of STEM employees have risen faster than those of non-STEM employees over the last 30 years, the increase is not evenly distributed across all fields.  Engineers, it turns out, saw their wages rise slower than those of non-STEM workers. 

Charette suspects, and I agree, that the real reason the myth of a STEM shortage won't go away, is that it is in the best interests of those who employ STEM workers to have an oversupply from which to select the top echelon of graduates, while being able to let them go when business slows without concern that there will be a problem in rehiring when things turn for the better again.  Because the long-term employment model is now long gone, engineers can look forward to a series of short-term jobs with multiple employers anyway, and often the only way to get a raise in such an environment is to quit and join a different firm.  But as an employee, you always take the risk that you'll quit at the wrong time and be out of work for an unknown length of time. 

If the STEM crisis isn't all it's cracked up to be, does this mean that it is perverse and wrong to encourage more students to study STEM subjects?  Not necessarily.  For a variety of cultural and political reasons, K-12 education in the U. S. has fallen on hard times, and one way to help fix it is to encourage a renewed focus on STEM subjects.  There is little actual harm in running pre-engineering programs in high schools, and maybe some good results, although the longitudinal studies to prove whether such programs are really effective are so expensive that they are almost never done.  And other things being equal, providing more resources for students to study STEM subjects in college is a good thing too.  But overall, we might be better off leaving the system to adjust itself, rather than expecting that such programs will permanently put the alleged STEM crisis to rest.

As Charette points out, there is now a sizable educational and governmental establishment that is heavily invested in the STEM myth, and whose existence would be threatened if we all woke up one morning and had a good laugh at their expense by realizing that the STEM crisis is at least partly advertising rather than reality.  And turning such bureaucracies around is a political problem, not just an engineering problem.  But the first step in dealing with such problems is to realize that things aren't necessarily the way they are presented to us.

Politicians and governments can do only so much.  Most of the people I know who are truly content with their role in the engineering profession were not waylaid into it by a government-sponsored program.  Someone close to them, a relative or friend, got them interested in engineering, or perhaps they just discovered on their own that it is fun and (usually) remunerative to make things.  As long as a society allows enough freedom for people to choose their direction in life, and provides enough resources to educate those who can succeed in mastering the technicalities of engineering, there will be enough engineers to go around.  Maybe not as many as companies always want, but enough.  And the next time you read something about the STEM crisis, take what you read with a grain of salt.

Sources:  The article "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth" by Robert N. Charette appeared on Aug. 30, 2013 on the IEEE Spectrum website at 

1 comment:

  1. For much of this post, you could substitute "Global Warming" for "STEM" and be spot on.