Whenever I write about the efforts to bolster U.S. graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, readers send me notes about their problems finding work despite a STEM degree. And that includes math teachers.
(If you are interested in this topic, take a look at this Duke study on which countries produce more engineers and the job prospects for those graduates. The report concludes: Our research shows that companies are not moving abroad because of a deficiency in U.S. education or the quality of U.S. workers. Rather, they are doing what gives them economic and competitive advantage. It is cheaper for them to move certain engineering jobs overseas and to locate their R&D operations closer to growth markets. There are serious deficiencies in engineering graduates from Indian and Chinese schools. Yet the trend is building momentum despite these weaknesses…The calls to graduate more engineers do not focus on any field of engineering or identify any specific need. Graduating more engineers just because India and China graduate more than the United States does is likely to create unemployment and erode engineering salaries.)
A recent story in the AJC examines the assumption that there are American jobs aplenty in STEM fields. Here is an excerpt:
In some STEM careers, the employment picture is downright lousy. “Record Unemployment Among Chemists in 2011, ” screamed the March headline in Science magazine’s Careers Blog. A headline from June: “What We Need is More Jobs for Scientists.”Unemployment in STEM fields is still well below the general population and slightly below college graduates in general. That “record” unemployment for chemists, for example, was 4.6 percent, compared with overall U.S. unemployment at that time of 8.8 percent.
Nevertheless, the glut of workers in some STEM areas (resulting in flat wages, and STEM grads forced to take jobs in non-STEM fields) directly contradicts the widely held view that the United States suffers from a critical shortage of qualified STEM graduates.
The truth, many experts say, is more complicated. “In a general sense, science and innovation do create jobs and drive growth, ” said Elizabeth Popp Berman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany (N.Y.) whose book “Creating the Market University” examines the history of university research and its economic impact. “As a nation, having lots of scientists and people inventing stuff is good for us.”
But that doesn’t mean all STEM graduates have a guaranteed job, Berman stressed. The STEM employment picture, Berman said, is “very mixed” and largely dependent upon a student’s particular major. Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not.
Some studies, meanwhile, have challenged the notion of an overall STEM worker shortage — instead finding that the United States is producing vastly more STEM graduates than there are STEM jobs awaiting them. As science organizations and corporations continue to sound the STEM shortage alarm, critics charge that these groups are motivated by self-interest — tech companies, for example, have claimed a shortage of trained workers even as they laid off thousands of U.S. employees, and moved those jobs to low-wage developing countries.
“It’s a way for them to sort of excuse why they’re shifting so much work offshore, ” said Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, who has testified before Congress on the need to tighten the legal loopholes that allow such maneuvers.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott’s has sometimes mocked liberal arts majors as impractical. Speaking to a Tallahassee, Fla., business group last year, Scott asked: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
Despite being mocked by Florida’s governor, anthropologists have been deemed important to national security by the U.S. Department of Defense. Its recent study on STEM-related workforce needs found that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology, ” and it recommended “ongoing investment” in those two areas, even as the wars wind down.
Why did anthropology show up in a military STEM report? By some definitions, anthropology is a STEM field. There is no clear, universally accepted definition of what careers comprise STEM, making it easy for job projections to be radically altered based on what industries are counted.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog