On a chilly winter morning, students in a suburban Washington, D.C., middle school classroom are raising their hands to report their career choice, and their responses have changed from those from kids in those seats even five years ago.
There are fewer future doctors, policemen, and veterinarians, and more than half say they want to be programmers, engineers, or are certain they want to work in a much-promoted STEM career.
Common wisdom of late would say that’s good for the economy, the country and the kids themselves? But is this love affair with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) such a sure thing?
In a recent book and article in the New Yorker, management professor Peter Cappelli, who directs the Center for Human Resources at the prestigious Wharton School, says only one in five STEM grads gets a job in his or her field, and STEM degrees alone – or degrees in any field – aren’t a golden ticket.
“It’s very broad,”Cappelli says. “Biology majors are making less than sociology majors, and one type of engineer can be very valuable while another can’t find a job. IT jobs are easy to find, but don’t lead anywhere.”
A report late last year from the Conference Board, a business research group, on opportunities in 464 fields for the decade ending in 2022 indicates that the need for STEM employees will be “surprisingly average.”
And in an article for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers reviewing a variety of data, Robert Charette, an information systems expert, argues that the STEM crisis might be “a myth.”
“Even as the recession recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid-and-late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment at many companies,” he writes.
He sites research suggesting that corporate employment policies don’t reflect a shortage and that hand-wringing about STEM goes partly back to our 1950s obsession with losing the space race. Other experts have noted that the United States is producing enough STEM grads and that the number of STEM jobs decreases with increased productivity.
So what should a students do if they are considering STEM majors?
Especially until you are sure about a career. Consider ways to shift gears.
Do research about the real opportunities in a field. Talk to people who know, and use reliable data.
Be specific, eventually.
Don’t rule out STEM positions, for instance, but study specific jobs in any field.
Consider making your own career by being an expert in an area where there is a clear need. No one disputes the fact that we’ll need health-care professionals but look for the best places to specialize in, say technology.
Don’t assume that a shortage of employees today means jobs tomorrow and recognize that there are swings in the popularity of careers.