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Are too many students majoring in STEM fields?

Posted: September 24, 2014 9:53 a.m.
Updated: September 24, 2014 9:53 a.m.
Nicolas Loran, ©

Americans have been oversold on STEM careers, Salzman argues, with the result that in many STEM fields we consistently produce more people than industries can accommodate.

Shortly before he died in 2011, Steve Jobs famously told President Obama that Apple would have located 200,000 iPhone manufacturing jobs in the United States, rather than China, if he could have found 8,700 qualified industrial engineers in the U.S. This exchange and others like it led to a widespread belief that American technology education was in crisis and that the U.S. was hemorrhaging jobs because our students couldn’t or wouldn’t do the hard math.

That claim was nonsense, says Hal Salzman, a public policy professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

To demonstrate that Apple would not have brought those jobs stateside, Salzman calculated the average wages of electronics production line workers in the U.S. at $42,000 compared to the average in China of $4,800. If Apple had relocated all those jobs to the U.S., he concluded, the company would have lost $26 billion a year in profits, slightly more than it earned in 2011 when the comment was made.

If Salzman is right, then even if qualified engineers had been standing on Palo Alto street corners holding “will work for food signs,” Apple would not and could not have made that shift.

Steve Jobs’ statement has gone largely unchallenged, Salzman argued last year in the journal Issues in Science and Technology, helping to solidify a persistent myth that the country badly needs more technically trained workers. The deeply rooted notion is that if we could steer more high school students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields they would all find rewarding careers.

Americans have been oversold on STEM careers, Salzman argues, with the result that in many STEM fields we consistently produce more people than industries can accommodate.

Salzman points to a recent NPR report on biomedical Ph.D.s, which found large numbers of highly qualified researchers languishing in a no man’s land of postdoctoral fellowships because universities are producing far more scientists than can find employment.

Schools are actually having to consider alternative career paths for majors that appear at first blush to be exactly the kind of rigorous technical fields thought to be in demand.

We spoke with Salzman on his way to a meeting with a group that aims to improve science and technology training for high school students.

Why did Steve Jobs make that claim back in 2011?

You will hear variations of this thing in talking to various corporate leaders, suggesting that they are going offshore or needing more guest workers because of the “STEM shortage.” This gets picked up in the news and repeated over and over. So I sat down and did the math taking the average salaries in the U.S. and China, and found that it would have cost Apple $26 billion for a single year to have left those jobs in the U.S. So on the face of it, availability of engineers had nothing to do with it. It was a purely and understandable profit move. In fact, if you look at the supply of industrial engineers in the U.S., there are plenty available.

So that iconic moment with Steve Jobs was inaccurate, and was really a cover for raw economics that were politically unpalatable?

Exactly. We thought it might just be mistaken, or just simple PR, but we now know better thanks to the Silicon Valley case earlier this year. [A class action suit by 64,000 software engineers alleges that major tech corporations conspired to hold down their wages. The mastermind, allegedly, was Steve Jobs.] Intel, Adobe and other companies were colluding to hold down wages. The collusion amounted to $3 billion in wage savings. So wage savings were clearly at the top of the list, not a secondary factor.

Did this myth pop out of thin air in 2011?

No, it was created in the early 2000’s, when firms were moving offshore and they wanted to bring in more guest workers, and there was a very strong political backlash. John Kerry started calling them “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” And when Kerry said that, the firms started to change the narrative. They started to develop the story that there is a shortage of STEM workers, and the reason there is a shortage of STEM workers is that Americans don’t do well.

You argue that we don’t need nearly as many STEM graduates as they say we do. Could you expand on this?

I’m not saying that we have too many or that people don’t need to do it. I’m saying that we don’t need to artificially increase supply. We just don’t need to push people into fields they are not interested in or don’t have the disposition for.

What is the actual demand level for STEM fields?

Depending on how you define it, maybe 4 or 8 percent to 12 percent max of our workforce needs is in a STEM job. And we have twice as many STEM graduates as we have jobs in STEM fields. And we have plenty of people with the skills who don’t find the jobs desirable and find better jobs. So it’s not a supply issue. It’s a demand issue. The qualified supply is there, and the potential supply is much greater than the jobs that exist.

Your analysis seems to suggest a fallacy with the very idea of STEM. Should technology be grouped with medicine or engineering?

STEM used to be called just science and engineering. Then they added technology. But technology is a very heterogeneous labor force. It includes the technically qualified person who keeps your computer running, but it’s not really a computer science degree. A lot of jobs in technology require a certain technical proficiency, but it’s more like the auto mechanics of the information age. It’s a different educational depth. The logically absurd conclusion now is that some people are including air conditioning technicians under this heading.

How does this skew our thinking?

What’s the purpose of defining the STEM labor force? Traditionally that’s been because it contributes to discovery, innovation and technological development, and it draws on a very particular body of knowledge and level of education. It isn’t better or worse, but has a very particular purpose. Including everyone who does technical work rightfully acknowledges their technical competence, but it’s not really the same type of education or career path.

Does STEM include medical fields?

Historically, STEM has not included health. That’s because originally (STEM) was connected with the military and the National Science Foundation, while health fields were under the National Institutes of Health. So the reason health was excluded was completely arbitrary. So when you hear about people leaving the STEM pipeline? If you don’t include health, that means that someone who gets a biology degree and goes on to become a physician, nurse, or a physical therapist, is declared to be a “loss” in the STEM pipeline. But common sense tells us that if someone gets a biology degree, which is a STEM field, and becomes a physician, which is not, that’s still a good use of a biology degree.

This all seems rooted in widespread desperation for something solid in a lagging postindustrial economy. People think of STEM as a talisman, where if they can get their kid to major in a STEM field, she’ll be OK.

That’s exactly right. First, the STEM dialogue was used politically to shift focus away from corporate strategy and globalization. Since 2008, it’s now been used to shift focus off of a weak economy. Instead, we say that our problems are that we don’t have enough trained people. What can I do about Wall Street? Not a lot. But I can tell my kid to get a STEM education, and that gives hope in a desperate job market in an economy where what were once good jobs no longer bring in a middle-class income.

Are these kids heading for a shock?

There’s a recent NPR series that delves into problems with a glut of biomedical Ph.D.s. For over a decade now, the life sciences have faced a desperate job market. The National Institutes of Health has launched a big program to find alternative career paths. We have so overproduced scientists that even those with elite credentials have a very hard time finding work.

Are we doing high school and college students a disservice by pushing hard on STEM preparation and slighting other fields?

Very few 17-year-olds really know what they want to do. That’s the point of college. You discover your strengths and interests. That discovery is really one of the great strengths of American education. Science is being undermined, I fear, by this narrow STEM focus. Pushing calculus, pushing more math and earlier math, and pushing out the humanities. It’s detrimental to the long-term strength of America and to science.

How is this narrow focus harming science?

We’ve interviewed a lot of hiring managers in science and technology fields. Rarely if ever have I heard a hiring manager tell me that when they hire engineers they can’t find technically competent people. When we ask what problems they face hiring engineers, the number one answer is communication. They need engineers who can work across boundaries, across cultures, who can understand the user. Steve Jobs, paraphrasing Edwin Land, used to say that Apple “stood at the intersection of humanities and science.” It’s a fine line. Yes, we want a strong STEM workforce. But we don’t get that by pushing everything else out of the equation. And I see too much of that at the K-12 level.



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