STEM: The Scam?

Since the end of World War II, the mantra of government and business is that “we need more kids to grow up to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” – aka “STEM”. 

And yet if you work in technology, you know that in vast swathes of the field, there’s no real shortage of people.  Especially in IT; even as baby boomers retire, there is plenty of unemployment among IT people; even as demand for IT workers booms, the supply seems to more than keep pace.  Have you checked out the contract rate for web coders or support analysts lately? 

And yet the government keeps cajoling our “best and brightest” to go into STEM. 


To keep the costs down, perhaps?

As this piece in the IEEE Spectrum notes, not only is there no shortage of STEM professionals, there’s an apparent skills mismatch, with many “STEM” careers being held by non-STEM degree-holders (I’d be one of them, by the way), and many STEM degree-holders working outside science and technology.

And yet the establishment keeps driving more people into STEM, and importing more programmers, engineers and technicians from overseas. 


Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said as much when in 2007 he advocated boosting the number of skilled immigrants entering the United States so as to “suppress” the wages of their U.S. counterparts, which he considered too high.

And it helps inflate the higher-ed bubble, too:

And the perception of a STEM crisis benefits higher education, says Ron Hira, because as “taxpayers subsidize more STEM education, that works in the interest of the universities” by allowing them to expand their enrollments.

An oversupply of STEM workers may also have a beneficial effect on the economy, says Georgetown’s Nicole Smith, one of the coauthors of the 2011 STEM study. If STEM graduates can’t find traditional STEM jobs, she says, “they will end up in other sectors of the economy and be productive.”

The problem with proclaiming a STEM shortage when one doesn’t exist is that such claims can actually create a shortage down the road, Teitelbaum says. When previous STEM cycles hit their “bust” phase, up-and-coming students took note and steered clear of those fields, as happened in computer science after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001.

Emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines carries other risks. Without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow their worldview—and their career options. In a 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, argued that point. “In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80 000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers,” he wrote. “But the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

For all the sneering people are doing at humanities these days – and I have a BA in English with minors in History and German – the selling of the STEM “crisis” seems to be a move to commoditize technical skill.  Communications is no commodity, though – and it seems to be what still what separates a bench engineer and their supervisors. 

So is the education system short-changing students by preaching STEM as the be-all and end-all of opportunities?

20 thoughts on “STEM: The Scam?

  1. It has been apparent for some time that the Powers That Be want the legal right to import endless numbers of low-wage workers into the US to replace virtually everyone.
    Due to the internet and blogs, journalists have seen their job prospects and earning power diminished. Because it affects their pocket books and their bottom lines, journalists are very aware that lower-cost competitors are crushing the market for their skills (such as they are).
    Yet these same journalists seem to be ignorant of the fact that these economic realities affect Americans who are construction workers, restaurant workers, and STEM workers.
    Which is why I am not sad to see the profession of ‘journalist’ go the way of typesetter. They are, by and large, worthless SOB’s.

  2. Given the candidates we’ve been interviewing, I’m not skeered.

    But someday universities will wise up to the fact that while the Fourier transform is important to understand, most EE’s that aren’t doing power generation and distribution end up in automation these days.

    Someday a kid is going to walk in here with the ink still wet on his sheepskin, sit down and start punching out sophisticated PLC code, optimizing our device level communications architechture and making cheap stepper motors do circular interpolation.

    Bah, who’m I kidding? Our institutions of higher learning still hire the likes of Bill Gleason and PZ Meyers to teach hard sciences.

  3. Well said. My usual response to comments about the “shortage” of engineers is that yes, there is a shortage of experienced engineers willing to be paid entry level wages–to be paid just like the guys who dropped out of engineering school because the math was too tough and went into teaching.

    I once received a call from a recruiter who was trying to hire experienced quality engineers on a contract basis for about $24/hour. She was confused about why the previous guy had left, so I explained to her that after you count the cost of medical insurance and FICA taxes, this was less than the electronics assemblers were earning at that same plant. Not much incentive to go through calculus for that! Another recruiter was trying to get a QE with > ten years experience for $30/hour–again, after FICA and benefits, this was actually about the tenth percentile for “newly minted” QEs.

  4. At least the US Chamber of Commerce , and the GOP reps they help elect, are consistent.
    You have to be a Democrat to believe that outsourcing jobs overseas is bad for workers, but bringing cheap foreign labor into the US is good for workers.
    You have to be a Libertarian to believe that workers will vote for you if you promise to increase competitors for their labor.

  5. The times may be bad for many, but if you are a highly trained instrument technician, or an experienced chemical engineer, you can go wherever you like. The more skills people have, the more they can gain by moving from company to company.

    Machines make people with the skills to use them more productive. That has not changed in 250 years. The last 20 years has given us database and communications technologies which allow information to be organized, packaged, and disseminated more efficiently, which has cost certain white collar workers their jobs. Selected groups of workers are always hurt during the transition, and inequality often increases. But how are these changes different from the last 10 times that a new level of technology has increased our productivity?

    Read the Grapes of Wrath sometime — Steinbeck goes on and on about how farm automation and factories are going to kill America and Americans, and how they’ll never be enough work for everyone again. He’s laughably wrong looking back from today, but he was regarded as a prescient prophet of doom in his time. I’m skeptical that this time is different.

  6. I started my career as an instrument tech, Emery. Water treatment plants, hydro power, giant telescopes — it’s all telemetry and control loops.
    Emery wrote:
    “Read the Grapes of Wrath sometime — Steinbeck goes on and on about how farm automation and factories are going to kill America and Americans, and how they’ll never be enough work for everyone again. He’s laughably wrong looking back from today, but he was regarded as a prescient prophet of doom in his time. I’m skeptical that this time is different.”
    It’s cliche’d to say “why, in the twenties they thought jazz drove people into a sexual frenzy! And back in the fifties, TV wouldn’t show Elvis below his waist! We need to acknowledge that change is a permanent condition in the modern age!”
    But cliche’s aren’t arguments. The point of modernism isn’t that changing moral standards are normal, it’s that nothing can be predicted based on what has happened in the past. This was, I think, a lot easier to believe in the mid 20th century than it is today.
    We don’t have free trade. We do not have a laissez-faire economy, and we never will. What we have is an economy where businesses privatize profits and socialize costs (I won’t use the word ‘corporations’ because it is too loaded).
    The people who pay the highest price for this are the Americans with the least education, the least marketable skills, and the least ability to protect their livelihoods from lobbyists and politicians.
    Capital is always in short supply. If you make your living by renting your capital, you are always selling in a seller’s market.
    Labor is very different than capital. Capital, as money, is a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a means of account. Labor is nothing like this.
    It is not an even playing field.

  7. There isn’t one path to success, and your list is unrealistically broad. In fact, the desire to make all of our students equally well-rounded has led to very broad but shallow curricula, particularly in high schools. But we do need all of our young people to have some of these skills, and other skills too. The focus of education needs to shift from cultivating the intellect to acquiring marketable skills. Cultivation of the intellect, while admirable and often valuable, should be an optional, lifelong endeavor, not the primary focus of attention for a 19-year-old. The days when Universities were primarily for teaching rich kids some sophistication and culture should have passed long ago, but some of that tradition lingers. I think it suits the self-image of the professors.

    [and one doesn’t get a BA in a STEM field, but rather a BSc, a BASc, or a BEng]

  8. The big problem is–and no one ever describes it this way–is college is EXTREMELY OVERPRICED and there are way too many non-core related disciplines and electives. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR 30 YEARS. People can’t get enough return on their investment either as a better human being / citizen or in career income / stability (chemical engineering, petroleum engineering etc. etc. excepted).

    If you don’t make at least X amount after college you are screwed. Society is screwed because we get collectively dumber by the day.

    Traditional liberal arts education is a GREAT IDEA as long as you don’t pay too much for it. Same for *most* technical / natural science training you can get. *

    Big Education = Destructive Parasites On Society

  9. one doesn’t get a BA in a STEM field, but rather a BSc, a BASc, or a BEng

    Which will be interesting news to my college friend, the MD with the BAs in Chemistry, Math and Music.

    Maybe she’s not a STEM person? Heck, maybe she’s not even a pediatrician! Maybe she’s just a piano instructor run amok!

    (Our college didn’t offer anything but BA until fairly recently)

  10. You don’t need to agree with me, I see it in the results of my friend’s choices. All of them who went to study liberal arts majors and wanted to save the world through the might of the pen, have now either switched to MBA’s or are out of a job (or gotten married to avoid getting one, in the case of the ladies). All those who went to study math and science (or something numerical), are doing phenomenal, in good companies, and compensated quite well . The market has spoken.

  11. @TheFedSucks, There are other problems, too:

    Arts programs are also orders of magnitude easier to set up and maintain than a science program. Since universities get the same amount of money from a dance student as a physics student, why would they go to the effort to set up a good physics department?

    Also, the key to a profitable college is not to channel graduates into good jobs, but to convince freshmen to sign on the dotted line. This is a problem. Once the college has the student’s money, all it has to do is remain accredited. It is more important for a college to brand itself as a fun place to be than as a fount of knowledge.

  12. Emery,

    Maybe you need smarter friends.

    I dunno. I got my BA in English – not out of any desire to save the world with the power of the pen, but because it was a logical degree for the career I’d already started (news and broadcasting, which I started when i was in high school). But I work in a STEM field – actually one of those fields that tries to bring some engineering rationality to a mostly qualitiative area in technology. And a big part of how I was able to make the leap from humanities to the periphery of STEM was…yep. Stuff I learned as an English major.

  13. “Arts programs are also orders of magnitude easier to set up and maintain than a science program. Since universities get the same amount of money from a dance student as a physics student, why would they go to the effort to set up a good physics department?

    Also, the key to a profitable college is not to channel graduates into good jobs, but to convince freshmen to sign on the dotted line. This is a problem. Once the college has the student’s money, all it has to do is remain accredited. It is more important for a college to brand itself as a fun place to be than as a fount of knowledge.”

    @ Emery

    Great post.

    Big Education = Inhumane, Wasteful Clusterfuck Of Government Force, Perpetrated By The Political Class

  14. This is a 36 YO multi million dollar hedge fund guy:

    “This booklist is designed to help you to discover the trends before anyone else has and get positioned for future booms.”

    Liberal arts *should* help one figure out the world and themselves.

    The whole college job filter thing is an overpriced scam. College should be only three years.

    We are doomed.

  15. Emery, I do not think that we are talking about the same problem.
    Businesses will always try to increase profit and decrease costs. This is not always a good thing. Businesses do not want to increase the number of H-1B’s because it’s good for the nation in the abstract or good for the citizens in particular.

  16. I studied chemical engineering and work for a chemical company and am, thus, surrounded by engineers and scientists. In my opinion, if more graduates of the arts came into business it would be a wonderful thing. Engineers might know their stuff, but only about 1 in 100 can effectively communicate it, and about 1 in 500 can communicate it in written form. We need more people who can communicate ideas and concepts, not just come up with those ideas and concepts.

    Now let’s gang up on Garrison Keilor for deriding the English majors. :^)

  17. Adam Smith wrote on the conflicting between national interests and the interests of capital.
    The language is a little stiff. Where Smith uses the term ‘country gentleman’, he meant what we would think of as an elected representative.
    Smith begins by explaining how two classes of people, land owners and workers, have interests that necessarily align with those of the nation. He then describes how the interests of the third class, the class that lives off of its capital, is often in conflict with the national interest

    His [the workers] employers constitute the third order, that of those
    who live by profit. It is the stock that is employed for
    the sake of profit, which puts into motion the greater part
    of the useful labor of every society. The plans and proj-
    ects of the employers of stock regulate and direct all the
    most important operations of labor, and profit is the end
    proposed by all those plans and projects. But the rate of
    profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the pros-
    perity, and fall with the declension, of the society. On the
    contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor coun-
    tries, and it is always highest in the countries which are
    going fastest to ruin. The interest of this third order,
    therefore, has not the same connection with the general
    interest of the society as that of the other two. Merchants
    and master manufacturers are, in this order, the two classes
    of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and
    who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share
    of the public consideration. As during their whole lives
    they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently
    more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of
    country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are com-
    monly exercised rather about the interest of their own par-
    ticular branch of business, than about that of the society,
    their judgment, even when given with the greatest candor
    (which it has not been upon every occasion), is much more
    to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two
    objects, than with regard to the latter. Their superiority
    over the country gentleman is, not so much in their knowl-
    edge of the public interest, as in their having a better
    knowledge of their own interest than he has of his. It is
    by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they
    have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and per-
    suaded him to give up both his own interest and that of
    the public, from a very simple but honest conviction, that
    their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public.
    The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular
    branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects
    different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To
    widen the market and to narrow the competition is always
    the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may fre-
    quently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public;
    but to narrow the competition must always be against it,
    and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their
    profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for
    their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their
    fellow citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation
    of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to
    be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be
    adopted till after having been long and carefully examined,
    not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most sus-
    picious attention. It comes from an order of men whose
    interest is never exactly the same with that of the public,
    who have generally an interest to deceive and even to op-
    press the public, and who accordingly have, upon many
    occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

  18. FACT:

    Basic knowledge of sociology and psychology is a good idea.

    Some ideas are better conveyed via literature.

    History. Enough said.

    Speaking. Enough said.

    Writing. Enough said.

    Math. Enough said.

    Statistics. Enough said.

    We are doomed.

  19. Mitch,

    STEM at the elementary and possibly secondary levels seems to be quite a different animal. It is more about pedagogy than curriculum. Inquiry-based approaches and hands-on learning are encouraged. Such approaches take students beyond merely meeting state standards and into the realm of learning for learning’s sake and reasoning through problems and issues. It teaches students to actually think instead of merely memorize. At the elementary level, STEM schools – both conventional and charter – are head and shoulders above so-called “conventional” schools when it comes to turning out great students.

    That’s good for students regardless of what program they enroll in at college or university.

  20. Pingback: A Matter Of Degrees | Shot in the Dark

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