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.
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.
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."
"In Silicon Valley, where many STEM jobs are, we have to fill the positions with foreigners through H1B visas," Gillian Flatos Doornbos, a technical publications manager in the San Francisco area, says. "We can't find enough Americans to fill the positions. So yes, there is a shortage."
Prakash Vaidya, an electrical engineer and the founder of Quantronix, a software development and business consulting company, agrees that many employers "offshore" jobs to foreigners because there aren't enough Americans with STEM experience.
"Being an engineer does challenge you, but it's not necessarily the most financially rewarding," Vaidya admits. American society doesn't emphasize academics, he says, so people tend to gravitate toward more-lucrative industries instead of STEM ones. "The Americans who I've seen who are in STEM are brilliant," he adds. "You get the brightest crop of those Americans who are dedicated."
His company also helps clients hire IT professionals, and he's noticed that STEM candidates find work quickly. "Most of the people who are looking for jobs in STEM fields don't stay in the market that long," he says. "They do find jobs, sometimes with multiple people bidding for them. I guess that means the jobs are there for people who are qualified."
Business experts point out that an engineering degree doesn't automatically guarantee that a candidate will be a good engineer. To be productive, STEM employees need to have a host of life skills – logic, analysis, problem-solving – that are not honed exclusively in a college setting.
"What STEM means to the many companies across the U.S. is 'Send me someone who can think critically, apply mathematics to problems, and help us solve problems,' " Jamai Blivin, founder and CEO of Innovate + Educate, says. "Therefore, rather than companies requiring STEM 'labels,' which then creates a mismatch -- 'I don't need a biomedical engineer, I need a mechanical engineer!' -- they should begin looking at the underlying skills necessary for the job, and work with training and education partners to assure that those skills are being taught or learned."
Rather than put the onus on the employers, Charette proposes making STEM subjects a bigger part of a general curriculum, at all grade levels, rather than focusing on boosting the number of college graduates with STEM degrees. It's an idea touted by President Barack Obama as well, who earlier this year committed $3.1 billion to support teachers and to reorganize and improve STEM education programs nationwide.
"You don't necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, and learn them well, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job," Charette writes. "Improving everyone's STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people's employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks. And, of course, when science, math, and engineering are taught well, they engage students' intellectual curiosity about the world and how it works."
It's an idea that resonates with educators, even those who are not teaching in STEM fields.
"We need to teach people some technical skills, yes, but we also need them to be grounded in research methodology and (in short) the ability to learn new things," Suzanne Richard, who teaches English at Northeastern University in Boston, says. "This is true of all graduates because no one can predict what any career is going to look like in 10 years... The ability to think critically and to learn information as it becomes available is more important than any technical skill because your field will change, and you have to be able to change with it."
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