Are We Misinterpreting the STEM Crisis?

Encouraging students to get advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math may not be the way to solve the country's STEM problem.

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Experts argue that we need better STEM literacy overall, not just more graduates with degrees in STEM fields.

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It's common knowledge that the United States is facing a STEM crisis -- so common, in fact, that we tend not to question it. According to a February 2012 by President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, more than 1 million new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates will be required to fill high-tech jobs that the country desperately needs to stay competitive. Efforts to improve test scores at the high-school level haven't produced great results: The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development reports that American 15-year-olds were ranked 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. Kids seem reluctant to study STEM, and no one seems to know how to pique their interest. "Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree," the Council members wrote in their report.

[READ: To Boost STEM Education, Companies Need to Change How They Hire]

But the severity of the crisis depends on how you crunch the numbers, writes Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The president of ITABHI Corporation, a business and technology risk management consultancy, Charette calls the STEM crisis a myth, and says that leaders the world over are focusing on filling jobs and earning specific college degrees when they should be worrying about boosting general STEM literacy instead.

[READ: Are Teachers' Unions Bad for STEM Education?]

The Department of Commerce counted 7.6 million people working at STEM jobs in 2010, Charette writes. But the National Science Foundation's tally was much higher – 12.4 million people. Why the difference? The NSF included jobs held by health-care workers, psychologists, and social scientists, among other fields that the Department of Commerce didn't factor in.

Even going by the lower number, "Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees," he writes. "Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them -- 11.4 million -- work outside of STEM."

The data indicate that there are far more STEM-qualified workers than there are STEM jobs, Charette points out. "And if many STEM jobs can be filled by people who don't have STEM degrees, then why the big push to get more students to pursue STEM?" he asks.

The government data also doesn't take into account STEM jobs created by entrepreneurs in traditionally non-STEM industries, Devin Voorsanger, a New York-based digital strategist to Fortune 100 companies, points out. "For every STEM graduate who becomes an entrepreneur you usually will have several STEM positions that are needed to support his or her endeavor," he tells U.S. News & World Report.

Even as the most-recent recession eases, tech companies continue to lay off STEM workers or hire less-expensive (and temporary) foreign workers using H1B visas, Charette writes. Many STEM jobs end up being outsourced or automated. In some industries, NPR reports, we no longer need many highly skilled workers, just many computers and machines -- and maybe a handful of people to maintain them.

The way companies hire STEM workers has also changed dramatically in just a generation. "In engineering, for instance, your job is no longer linked to a company but to a funded project," Charette explains. "Long-term employment with a single company has been replaced by a series of de facto temporary positions that can quickly end when a project ends or the market shifts."

Workers in STEM fields, however, argue that the crisis does indeed exist -- but they say it's about a lack of skills and experience, not a lack of jobs or candidates with advanced degrees.

"There's a shortage of employers willing to hire young people and train them," commenter "Moltenmetal" writes at IEEE. "They call this a 'skills shortage': they can't find sufficient numbers of people with 10 years of experience because they didn't hire fresh grads 10 years ago."


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  • Lylah Alphonse

    Lylah M. Alphonse is the Managing Editor of Special Reports for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at LAlphonse@usnews.com.