The STEM shortage myth: A reality check for IT employers and employees

Patrick Gray thinks the STEM crisis is overblown, and that it's time to cut through the hype. Do you agree? Weigh in on this discussion.

Siemens STEM competition winners Priyanka Wadgaonkar, Zainab Mahmood, and JiaWen Pei
Image: Siemens

If you've paid even minimal attention to the news media over the past 5-10 years, you've likely seen stories about the impending shortage of qualified STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates being produced by US schools. CEOs have joined the chorus, providing anecdotes about their inability to find qualified candidates for STEM-related jobs despite fat paychecks and interesting work. Even educators have shifted their focus to STEM, with my son's preschool launching its first formal STEM program, which hopes to instill in my four-year-old the fundamentals of robotics, mathematics, and engineering.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Michael S. Teitelbaum attempts to debunk the idea that there's a STEM shortage, noting that recent studies indicate US colleges are producing 100-200% more STEM graduates than there are jobs available. He further highlights that there have been nearly a half dozen cries of STEM shortages since WWII, each ending in a glut of STEM-trained people followed by painful and widespread layoffs. According to Teitelbaum, when you cut through the rhetoric, there are shortages in some narrow fields, but no empirical evidence to suggest that STEM is facing a broad and widespread shortage.

The adaptable, cyclical engineer

If you were of working age as recently as the late 1990s, you lived through the most recent STEM boom/bust cycles. I was just starting my career at the time, and I was jealous of dozens of friends and former classmates dashing off to startups with a couple dozen hours' worth of HTML knowledge in their heads, and a larger paycheck than my comparatively "paltry" Big Five consulting salary in their pocket. Eighteen months later, those same folks were competing against a massive glut of starry-eyed web developers, fighting over jobs that were now barely paying enough to make the rent.

I believe much of the current STEM mythology is driven by the technology sector, where new careers and job roles can materialize literally overnight. In 1990 no one was hiring HTML developers, since the role didn't exist outside a couple of research labs. Fast-forward 10 years and there's a gold rush for anyone who can spell HTML, followed by a major downturn in jobs and pay as the skill becomes commoditized. New technologies like Node.js, cloud computing, analytics, etc. are today's HTML, with skilled workers in short supply, since these technologies only emerged on the scene recently. As knowledge and experience spread, and attraction to these fields grows due to the breadth of opportunities on offer, today's $150K job becomes tomorrow's $50K commodity.

The STEM black eye

The major risk to hype around the STEM shortage is a backlash against these fields, similar to what we witnessed during the dot-com bust, an event that marred the entire field until only recently. With everyone from teachers to CEOs loudly proclaiming the importance of STEM, and today's high school and college students being regaled with tales of six-figure Silicon Valley salaries and Teslas in every garage, it's easy to envision a scenario where these people feel duped by STEM.

The fact is that the technologies being taught in even the most forward-thinking schools will likely be obsolete by the time graduates have a chance to apply them, and unless they're adaptable, exceptional, lucky, or some combination, their dreams may be shattered by a Dilbert-like existence in a cubicle rather than the Hollywood-inspired glory they've been told to expect following a STEM career.

Minding the gap

The keys to correcting this boom/bust cycle are on both sides of the employer-employee relationship. For employers, an employee shortage in some critical skill areas does not represent an existential threat to your company, the economy, or the very fabric of the nation. At best, some of the hand wringing around STEM is naive; at worst, it's political theater designed to build a case for anything from offshoring to employer collusion for wage fixing. Employers also need to look for capable, proven individuals with a demonstrated ability to learn and adapt. Most of us have heard of the ad for someone with 10 years of Java experience, produced two years after the language was invented. Rather than looking for a laundry list of skills, look for individuals with a proven ability to learn and adapt; they'll fill current and future skills.

For employees, approach your career development deliberately and thoughtfully. Don't look solely to your employer to provide formal training, and avoid focusing solely on a single technology or aspect of your business. While I'd never call myself a developer, I occasionally "play" with various programming tools to do some mundane tasks to keep aware of what's current and exercise a different set of skills. Seek out new roles at your current job, and occasionally check job boards and network with peers to identify changes in the job market.

Ideally, the current angst about a STEM crisis will rationalize before another boom/bust cycle. In the best case, interest in STEM will continue among students without suggestions of illusory riches, and employers will seek capable, adaptable employees rather than the skill of the moment.

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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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