STEM Recruiting Games Exposed

STEM Recruiting Games Exposed

There’s been a constant call in the media to recruit more people into science, technology, engineering and math. I’ve talked a lot about this issue on my own blog. Mainly that I believe the argument that we are graduating too few people into STEM disciplines is one propagated by industry to keep wages low on the one hand but also to feed their desire to expect more and more from entry level employees and cut back on training that was standard in the past. There’s been reports on both sides, arguing that impending mass retirement will create a shortage and others that we’re falling behind other countries and need to catch up. Other concerns are probably valid but mis-targeted. Analysis I have done on open jobs shows that the kinds of engineers we’re actually short of are software engineers¬†and programmers and developers rather than the more core engineering disciplines.

But a new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce indicates that we’re actually meeting the numbers we need to fill open job positions and replace those who leave STEM. The report predicts STEM employment will only make up 5% of total employment in the US in 2018. They postulate that while STEM employees receive wage premiums, the demand for jobs in STEM is not the major issue. Instead they believe that we need more people with a STEM background who have what they call “core competencies”.

They state some interesting facts about attrition in STEM. Namely that 38% of undergraduates who start with a STEM major eventually leave it, that 43% of STEM graduates go on to work in other fields, and that 10 years later 46% who started in the field with STEM bachelor degrees have left for something else. They attribute this to better pay in other fields and different values elsewhere. For better pay they are probably referring to the medical and financial industries and maybe patent law. I’m sure there are plenty of engineers who while they might appreciate many elements of being an engineer it’s certainly not the solid paycheck that perhaps their intelligence and education could entitle them to elsewhere.

The study shows an interesting graphic that for every 100 students who graduates with a bachelor’s degree in STEM only 8 will be working in the field 10 years later. But I think some of the study’s conclusions are biased. I agree better pay elsewhere is certainly a key draw. But I’m not sure that’s because other fields really need people with science or engineering degrees. Maybe as much as engineering could stand to benefit from a broader and more liberal arts background it could be many non-STEM college educations should place a higher emphasis on science and math beyond the usual minimal GE requirements.

What do you think? Is there a legitimate point to this study in that STEM education could be used for other fields? Or is the study just seeing the result of changing manufacturing and research industries that no longer value scientists and engineers? (Photo from Apteryx australis)

3 comments

Good post, and interesting study. One aspect of the study that was kind of buried is that the authors counted moving from engineering to management, even engineering management, as leaving STEM. I saw quite a few of my school colleagues make a beeline for management because of the higher pay. I also knew more than a few who started in engineering, then drifted into sales and marketing, often because they just didn’t enjoy engineering. (In school, many of those future salespeople had a knack for building support networks to get through the classwork.)

I have a mixed feeling about not counting engineering management as STEM jobs. Not counting them emphasizes the levelling-off of pay that tends to happen to older engineers. As someone who has been a working engineer for a while, this is an issue that I don’t mind highlighting. On the flip side, a career path from STEM into management is so standard that not counting those jobs is guaranteed to create a picture of “we need more STEM education”, which in turn feeds the mill of hiring young, cheap engineers and undervaluing experienced ones.

Not counting technical sales jobs, and for that matter patent attorney jobs, is also problematic. Sure, a salesman isn’t doing engineering, but the ones who do the best at selling me parts understand what those parts do, and they wouldn’t be able to do that without their STEM education. Furthermore, a degree in certain STEM fields is a license requirement for patent attorneys and agents, and they need that background to do their work.

Anyway, it’s an interesting study, and telling regardless of the assumptions that were made. The 8% number is shocking, but in hindsight, perhaps about right. I’ve certainly seen a huge drop-off in the number of my fellow engineering and science majors who are still doing engineering or science. I didn’t realize it was this universal.

Stephen

“…the argument that we are graduating too few people into STEM disciplines is one propagated by industry to keep wages low on the one hand but also to feed their desire to expect more and more from entry level employees and cut back on training that was standard in the past.”

My thoughts in a nutshell. I’m liable to suspect that this whole STEM push is synthetically motivated for all the wrong reasons. Government and industry can say whatever they want, justified by whatever fabricated data set they publish, but actions speak louder than words and those who hold a genuine, self-motivated interest in a relevant STEM field are more than capable of seeing through the smoke and mirrors.

“In school, many of those future salespeople had a knack for building support networks to get through the classwork.”

Speaking of universal.

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