Saturday, December 3, 2011

The S.T.E.M. Scam

In the past two weeks there has been a big push for “S.T.E.M.” — training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The United States, it is said, is falling behind the rest of the world in these technical areas. Supposedly, large number of jobs in these fields are going unfilled. Handpicked commissions are calling the situation a crisis.

Don’t fall for it. If it is true that the United States is falling behind, it is not because of lack of training, but because of lack of interest from business. Plenty of people, millions actually, have all the training you can get in an area of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, but aren’t working in their field because the jobs aren’t there. How many jobs are there really? Go to any major job site and search for “mathematician” as a job title. Good luck finding anything at all, anywhere in the United States. Nor do botanists have it much better. I found 1 job for a mathematician and 2 for botanists when I searched at Were you thinking of becoming an astrophysicist, seismologist, or oceanographer? Where would you work? When I searched, I could not find a single job opening with those words in the job title. A search for “Geologist” turned up 70 openings, but still, that is 70 jobs for the thousands of unemployed and underemployed geologists in the country to fight over.

A search for “scientist,” “technology,” or “engineer” is more fruitful, but these words are mostly found in combination with other words and long lists of required skills and experience. It is not enough to be an “engineer” or even an “electrical engineer” if you want a job. If you are an electrical engineer with experience in automotive safety, there may be a job for you, but that is not a skill combination you can qualify for based on education alone. It is the same story with most S.T.E.M. jobs. They require rare combinations of very specialized skills. When you look at the jobs available within any specialty, the numbers are small. And when technical workers apply for jobs outside of their area of specialty, they have the same chance that a dishwasher or taxi driver would have applying for those openings.

As a society, we shouldn’t be trying to push people who have an apprehensive feeling about technical work into technical fields. As an individual, you will do better, financially and otherwise, working in a field that appeals to you. If you really, really want to be a scientist, you will find a way to make it work. But if you go into a technical field just because of the promise of large numbers of jobs, you are likely to be disappointed. And for businesses, the skilled workers with advanced degrees are there for the taking, whenever they decide they are really interested in hiring.