Chances are you’ve heard about the shortage of STEM workers in the United States, as well as the many efforts–both public and private–to attract students to STEM careers. Yet this article by CBS News casts doubt on those shortage claims, asserting that merely one quarter of people with STEM degrees are working in a STEM job. So does this mean that the need for STEM workers is all just hype? Not necessarily. The article makes no claims as to WHY the STEM grads aren’t working in STEM fields: is it because they could not find such jobs, or did they simply decide to pursue other careers? The answer is not known. Also, the unemployment rate among those with STEM degrees is far lower than it is for the general population of workers, meaning that science and math skills are very much in demand outside of traditional STEM fields. All in all, the employment picture remains quite good for those with STEM degrees.
Yet the most powerful take-away for me came near the end of this article. While the value of STEM skills is no myth, the argument that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in math and science is in fact false. The U.S. remains dominant in these fields, and the unfounded fear of losing excellence has driven efforts to push more people into certain research careers, which has led to cycles of boom and bust in the research job market as well as gluts of certain workers. There is no doubt that we live in a tech and data driven society that depends on STEM skills, and the U.S. would do well to up its investment in scientific research, but fear-mongering is the wrong approach to take. We saw this 50 years ago during the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. poured funds into missile technology out of fear of falling behind the Russians. (In reality, the Russian technology was nowhere close to ours.) So let us continue our efforts to bolster math and science education and encourage our students to explore STEM careers, but let us do it out of an enthusiastic and optimistic desire to expand technology for our nation and the world, not out of a desire to best the “other.” Then our students will truly be able to focus on solving problems in a global community instead of focusing on beating some phantom foe.