So much for the STEM shortage?

There's a disconnect between the rhetoric of a shortage of students pursuing degrees in STEM fields, and ongoing layoffs in the IT sector. What's going on?

Image: iStock/Catherine Yeulet

In November of this year, freshly promoted Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins delivered a keynote at the Cisco STEM Innovation Challenge, an event that assembled high school students, teachers, and Cisco engineers to promote the importance of STEM-related fields and the "lucrative careers" available to those with a STEM background.

Add this to the chorus of political calls for more STEM education, from the President of the United States down to local school boards, and STEM careers were are being presented as the perfect path to a secure future, with high pay, interesting work, and lifetime employment for anyone entering the field. Less than a year later, Cisco is ending 5,500 of those careers, or about 7% of its workforce. This follows large cuts by other companies that routinely fly the STEM banner, including HP, Intel, and IBM.

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A question of definition

Part of the challenge with promoting a so-called STEM shortage is that STEM covers an overly broad spectrum of disciplines, from mechanical engineering to marine biology. These fields are also generally non-transferable. If a biomedical engineer finds limited job prospects upon graduation, he or she has about the same ability to switch to software engineering as someone with a degree in American History. While there's a fair case to be made that the STEM fields teach a broadly-applicable mindset and methodology, the HR departments run by the CEO's preaching the STEM shortage do little to recognize mindset versus laundry lists of technical credentials, and a bias toward dismissing obsolete skillsets rather than retraining.

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Following the money

Clearly, there's a significant disconnect occurring when some of the most vocal advocates of STEM training are culling significant portions of their STEM workforce. After all, if the STEM shortage were as acute as the rhetoric implies, massive layoffs of STEM staff would be akin to removing your liver to lose a bit of weight. When one looks at the STEM "crisis" objectively, however, an ongoing "crisis" offers significant benefit to its proponents at a fairly minimal cost.

There are, in fact, many skills in short supply in the technology space. Beating the STEM drum ultimately results in a larger talent pool for the technology industry to draw from, lowering their ongoing talent costs, either by creating a talent surplus and lowering wages or increasing the quality of talent that's available. Aside from some program funding and the occasional "STEM Day" where students interact with technology companies and learn about careers in technology, it costs the technology industry very little, as most of the cost of mitigating a STEM shortage is borne by students and the educational system. The educational system becomes a happy co-conspirator in the process. Whether there are actually STEM careers available to graduates or not, a STEM "crisis" means more funding, more computers, and more value placed on its services and teachers.

What's a student to do?

While there's lots of nice talk about "following your dreams" and ignoring the financial aspects of your career choice, the financial prospects of your chosen field should come into consideration, both in the short and longer terms. STEM is too large a field to provide any meaningful insight into career prospects, since it includes everything from Advanced Mathematics to Mechanical Engineering, fields that are diverse and subject to variable job markets. At the same moment, one STEM field might be burning hot, while another is ice cold. For example, a recent mantra among technology companies is that "hardware is dead," reducing the need for Mechanical Engineers, while Data Scientists are still a hot commodity. Looking for broader skills and themes that will help advance your career is a better approach. Clearly, technology will play a role in most fields, so a basic understanding of the process behind technology, whether it's coding or very basic engineering, will likely serve one well regardless of their ultimate career choice.

Advice for technology leaders

The great risk of the incessant STEM shortage talk is that students and employees are smart enough to notice the waves of layoffs in the technology sector, and likely have a friend, parent, or relative who offers a very different perspective on a technology career than the happy talk about vast riches and near-lifetime employment. Additionally, the technology sector itself has vastly more options than pure engineering roles. An artist or designer can have a rich career in technology in fields ranging from consulting to user experience design, just as much as a software engineer focused on coding, and frankly each could benefit from some exposure to the other's discipline.

Rather than endlessly beating the STEM drum, it would serve the field and our bottom lines better if we articulated specifically what STEM skills were most relevant to the technology sector, with a focus on those that transcend specific technologies that may become obsolete. The hundreds of hours I spent learning C and Pascal did little to aid my career, but perhaps a course in basic software development methodologies and process would have better served me.

Finally, the logic cited in many of the mass layoffs is a changing technology environment necessitating new skills. If flexibility in adapting to rapid change is the key skill we need in our workforce, advocating deep study in a tiny subset of STEM fields is not a recipe to build that type of workforce, nor is hiring primarily based on knowledge of a basket of specialized technologies. Before waving the STEM flag, consider the long-term prospects a bunch of engineers with outdated technology skills and significant depth in a narrow slice of STEM, fresh out of university would have at your company. Would you rather our educational system produce well-rounded, flexible learners who use technology as a tool, or the next crop of engineers you need to dismiss when technology changes?

Also see:
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About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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