The STEM fields tend to be the toughest majors in college. Students are smart enough to take the easiest path. They see that they can work their butts off getting an engineering or science degree. When they arrive at work, they find out that the people with liberal arts or business degrees — who don’t understand anything about how the company’s products are designed or produced — get promoted because they know how to market themselves to upper management.
Unfortunately, management likes to hire and reward people just like them (women experience this as the glass ceiling). Since our boardrooms are stuffed with extroverted financial and MBA types who treat engineers and scientists like just another corporate commodity, it’s hard to see how this will be remedied. The emphasis on trading instead of producing, and the huge proliferation of exotic financial instruments designed to reward non-productive financial churning makes people wonder why they should bother with STEM.
A lot of engineers and scientists are introverts and there is big bias in favor of extroverts in management structures. There are very few proactive programs to develop STEM people as managers and leaders because it’s easier just to go for the people who are extroverted self-promoters.
I do think that the rise of high tech entrepreneurship offers a ray of hope, because it empowers STEM types to start and operate businesses where they have an ownership position. Although it’s probably not enough to change the direction of our overall economy, the STEM entrepreneurs do see the financial and product success from their efforts.
How do we fix this?
For the last decade or two, we’ve decoupled college education from getting a job. According to Daniel H. Pink, who wrote “A Whole New Mind,” it is universities’ job to prepare kids for next generation jobs. How do they do that with 60-year-old professors? Lots of stories about “do what you love, the money will follow” have made kids think they should study their “hobbies” in college to have a good career.
Parents and teachers are key to changing the perception and challenging the student’s self-assessment in math and science. Efforts targeted toward college or even high school-aged girls especially are admirable, but may be too late.
We need to do a better job at an early elementary level with both boys and girls. Events like Science Olympiad and Mathlete competitions make science and math fun. My kids attend a school where STEM is cool, being a “geek” is admired and the arts are prevalent in everyday life. Instead of saying “what did you learn today?” we ask: “What did you ask today?”
In an economy where STEM people are desperately needed, and where quality employees are in great demand, we need to bring more people into STEM fields.
Michelle Crumm is chief executive and owner of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Present Value, advising entrepreneurs on strategies, mission statements, business planning and finance. In 2011, Crumm sold Adaptive Materials Inc., a start-up fuel cell company, to Ultra Electronics.