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Letter to the editor

STEM job prospects not as plentiful as the public assumes

April 7, 2016

One of the most important yet complex questions we face as educators is: How do we best prepare our students for life after the university? As part of a national trend, our campus is moving toward STEM-related fields and majors (Science, Technology, and Engineering, and Math).

This trend is based on a number of assumptions regarding future job prospects. The conventional wisdom in the United States today appears to be that STEM education is the key to success – of students, of higher education, and, indeed, of our economy in general. Yet as recent history tells us, conventional wisdom is often more complex than it appears, misleading, or sometimes simply inaccurate.

Two recent books challenge these assumptions — The Math Myth by Andrew Hacker, and Falling Behind? by Michael S. Teitelbaum. Hacker is professor emeritus of political science at Queens College, and author of numerous widely regarded books, and Teitelbaum is senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

The first complicating factor in discussing STEM is the lack of an official definition of STEM. The U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have estimates specifically for STEM employment because there is no consensus on which specific occupations belong. The federal government’s Standard Occupational Classification system has defined STEM workers as persons working in the following fields: computer and mathematical occupations, engineers, engineering technicians, life scientists, physical scientists, social scientists, science technicians, and STEM managers; and other specific occupations include architects, healthcare practitioners, healthcare managers, and healthcare technicians.

So when we talk about STEM fields, we are talking about various types of health-related technicians, who work in jobs that often require no formal degree beyond high school, or perhaps a certificate or Associate’s Degree, as well as brain surgeons, and everyone in between. Discussing STEM jobs as if they are one large, similar category is like suggesting that the lowest paid line-worker and the CEO at the same manufacturing firm are both in “manufacturing,” or that fast food workers and investment bankers both work in the “services.” It is necessary to talk about STEM fields in a similar way, especially at an institution that is primarily involved in providing bachelor’s degrees.

Are the job prospects for STEM graduates so different from other majors? This is where things get much murkier. I would encourage everyone to look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on Projections on Educational Employment for 2014-2024, available here: http://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2015/article/projections-occupation.htm. Or look at the BLS Occupational handbook, available here: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Job Projections, provided in two detailed spread sheets linked here: http://wisconsinjobcenter.org/labormarketinfo/, show similar data as well.

Which data should we examine? Which fields will have the most new jobs? The most job openings? The fastest growth in the number of jobs? The most job openings for those with a bachelor’s degree? No college degree, or perhaps a graduate degree? Looking at all of this data, one could easily make the case for entering any one of a number of fields, including nursing, education (at all levels), food services, sales, or certain specific computer-related fields (e.g. software developers but not programmers), to name only a few. To be clear: I am not saying that some STEM fields do not have very good job prospects (registered nurses, for example). Rather, I am saying when we look at employment projections outlined in all of this data, it is not at all clear that the employment future, or the economy, will be dominated by STEM fields, particularly for individuals with bachelor’s degrees.

Writing in The Atlantic in 2014 (and providing several links to relevant studies performed by leading research institutions), Teitelbaum concluded that “…U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.” (Note: In 2013, Tietelbaum was named Person of the Year by Science Careers [affiliated with Science magazine] for his “dedicated, imaginative, surpassingly effective work on behalf of early-career scientists”.)

Questioning conventional wisdom is difficult. Ideas become popular, pushed by certain interests, and the vast majority of the public just doesn’t have the time and/or interest, understandably, to look into the soundness of claims that are commonly repeated and accepted. Like just about everybody, I also assumed that our economy needed more of all types of STEM workers until a few weeks ago when I began to look more closely at this issue. It is therefore up to those of us who are in the business of education and research to critically examine conventional wisdom. The nation’s entire education system was overhauled with the No Child Left Behind Law, which was, in part, premised on state-level results that turned out not to be true. And remember the evils of dietary fat? Or that all calories were created equal? And what about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or the housing bubble that couldn’t burst? Or 2015’s conventional political wisdom that Donald Trump would fade away just as soon as voters started paying closer attention?

Colleges and universities are the primary venues in our society where ideas, sometimes very popular ones, need to be carefully and critically examined. As I frequently tell my students, research is rarely uncomplicated, and results of empirical investigation often are contradictory, unclear, or ambiguous. Right now, conventional wisdom appears to be that STEM fields are the future, and we had better get on board that train, and fast. As a university, and as a community of students and scholars, I respectfully suggest that we look carefully at all the relevant data and trends that can shed light on this overarching claim before we rush headlong into a new model of education. And this all-important discussion needs to take place within the context of UWRF’s mission to “help prepare students to be productive, creative, ethical, engaged citizens and leaders with an informed global perspective.”

Neil Kraus is professor and chair of the Political Science Department, chair of the International Studies Program, and pre-law advisor. He teaches several courses in American politics and policy, and is author of two books and several articles and book chapters on urban politics and policy.


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