It’s pretty common knowledge that the U.S. isn’t producing enough mathematicians, scientists and engineers to support demand in “STEM” fields. And reports come and go that other countries are facing similar shortages. But like all things that are definitely true, it’s actually pretty complicated to prove that the trend really exists. Robert N. Charette of IEEE Spectrum got suspicious and began combing data from the last six decades. His conclusion is that the US actually has plenty of STEM workers, and the hype about a shortage may be doing more harm than good.
Charette writes that, “The problem with proclaiming a STEM shortage when one doesn’t exist is that such claims can actually create a shortage down the road.” He argues that if too many students pursue STEM careers thinking they will be guaranteed a job and then hit an unexpectedly difficult market, students coming after them will be discouraged from pursuing similar careers and too many may steer clear. Furthermore, creating urgency around STEM may make students less likely to prioritise educational balance. They will be well trained in STEM fields but won’t be flexible in terms of bringing humanities skills to STEM jobs or having the ability to move careers if they desire.
In terms of the myth’s origins, Charette cites vast discrepancies in how STEM grads and careers are counted and understood:
Who exactly is a STEM worker: somebody with a bachelor’s degree or higher in a STEM discipline? Somebody whose job requires use of a STEM subject? What about someone who manages STEM workers? And which disciplines and industries fall under the STEM umbrella?
The piece points out that when so many conflicting reports are available, it’s easy to cherry pick data. You can make it seem like there are too many STEM workers or not enough. You can make graduation rates in STEM majors look like they’re on the rise or decline. And even when he controlled for as many factors as possible, the “real” deal about STEM careers is just as confusing as all the smoke and mirrors. “At least in the United States, you don’t need a STEM degree to get a STEM job, and if you do get a degree, you won’t necessarily work in that field after you graduate.”
Charette notes a lot of caveats, and his analysis is nuanced so take a look at the full story. It serves as a good reminder that it’s especially important to question things we take for granted. [IEEE Spectrum]