Stop trying to force students into STEM fields

Before trumpeting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education as the answer to economic woes, consider how many STEM jobs are actually available.

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I've been writing about the supposed "STEM crisis" for years. Fundamentally, the "crisis" is the supposition that there are not enough people with STEM qualifications to fill the thousands of well-paying STEM jobs that the technology industry is creating. Listen to the loudest proponents of the STEM crisis, and you'll be left with visions of technology CEOs with dump trucks full of cash, presiding over seas of empty cubicle farms, who would happily splash the cash on anyone who walks through the door and can spell "STEM."

SEE: So much for the STEM shortage?

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While there's nothing wrong with advocating for a field, and there are certainly interesting and lucrative jobs available to STEM graduates, there is a very real risk to advocating for, and training people to fill jobs that don't actually exist. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the legions of COBOL programmers dispensed after the Y2K crisis had come and gone, but in STEM fields ranging from Oilfield Engineers impacted by macroeconomic changes, to an oversupply of PhD-level mathematicians competing for a tiny number of jobs in academia, not all STEM fields have actual job openings, and today's hot technology or field is tomorrow's FORTRAN. As the economy continues to undergo massive convulsions and uncertainty, an instant, high-paying job is far from guaranteed merely based on a STEM degree.

Where are these "thousands" of jobs?

The linchpin of the pro-STEM argument is that there are untold numbers of jobs that go unfilled. However, a recent Wall Street Journal article cites a declining hardware manufacturing sector in the US and Europe, and limited impact of software companies on the job market. While WhatsApp was sold for a whopping $19 billion, it employed only 55 people at the time of its sale. Certainly nice work if you can get it, but on a sheer numerical basis, an even more rarified gig than landing a spot on a top tier NFL team, and most would regard restructuring the educational system around generating more NFL players utter folly.

Even the large technology companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle have trimmed their staff levels since the last technology boom in the early 2000s, as everything from automation to more business discipline have rationalized their staffing levels. There are great stories about "rock star" developers in Silicon Valley, but they are exactly that: rock stars. These highly talented individuals operate in the upper tier of the top 1%, and their experience should not be presented as the norm to those considering a field of study, or designing the curriculum at our educational institutions.

SEE: If there's a tech skills shortage, why are so many computer graduates unemployed?

A rationalized approach to STEM

It's inarguable that technology has become a basic part of our lives. Just as an active and intellectually "healthy" citizen should understand the basic functions of government, history, and the financial system, so too should they understand the basic workings of the STEM fields. A software development class and a basic product design or engineering class should be key elements of everyone's education, just as an introduction to philosophy and economics or business class helps one operate in the modern world regardless of their field of study or ultimate career choice.

Rather than trying to turn second graders into computer scientists, use the educational system to expose students to STEM at an early age and provide direction to those students who are interested in further study. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who gave me a couple of books and a copy of GW-BASIC on a floppy disk in third grade when I showed an interest in technology, and this was far more valuable than any elementary school computer science class delivered by a harried math teacher who was now forced to teach programming. Educators can provide the spark and then point children toward the myriad free tools and classes that exist outside the classroom rather than attempting to push every child toward STEM. Better yet, the chorus of STEM advocates should be leading the charge to mentor interested students, and provide the facilities and tools for students who might be more interested in backbone.js than baseball.

Stemming the STEM tide

The technology field has been inarguably kind to me, and I wouldn't trade my varied career for any other (except perhaps for guitarist with The Who), and I've tried to help those along who have similar interests. However, STEM is not some magical talisman that guarantees lifetime employment at spectacular pay grades, any more than a medical degree or trade education. There are pros and cons to every field, and we ultimately do our students and fellow citizens a disservice by failing to present both the plusses and minuses of an education and career in STEM.

Also see:
Report: Tech sector growing, but IT is hemorrhaging jobs
Tech's gender gap is getting worse, not better, report says
Piper's Minecraft DIY computer kit teaches kids programming and engineering
Why the university of the future will have no classrooms, no lectures, and lots of tech
IdeaFestival 2016: Why science and tech need the humanities to create maximum value, explains MIT physicist

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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