July 27

THE UNITED States’ shortage of scientific workers used to be undisputed. Graduates with scientific training are employed at a substantially higher rate than the national average. They’re also harder to find: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job openings take twice as long to fill as other ones.

But these statistics have been called into question. A recent Census Bureau study found that only a quarter of bachelor’s degree graduates in STEM fields end up working in those fields. For computing, the number is almost one-half, but in “softer sciences,” such as psychology, the number is in the single digits. Eager critics seized this opportunity to lambast the Obama administration’s emphasis on STEM education.

Not so fast.

Let’s start with the flaws in the survey. The Census Bureau defines STEM professions as engineers, mathematicians and statisticians, computer workers and scientists. Quite bizarrely, it leaves out doctors, business executives and financiers, and science and math instructors — professions that are embedded deeply in math and science. Yet it defines STEM majors broadly, including social sciences and psychology. Tweaking the definitions would likely substantially boost the number of STEM majors working in STEM professions.

Whatever the number generated, it should not be seen as determining the need for STEM education. For too long, the public debate over STEM has focused on job numbers. STEM education is seen as valuable only when there’s an oversupply of traditional STEM jobs and a dearth of science graduates.

That might have been true 40 years ago, but not now. With all industries incorporating some type of technology and data analysis, STEM is relevant in almost any field. Agriculture doesn’t qualify as a STEM industry to the Census Bureau, but many farmers rely on genetic modification of crops. Mining and construction require strong training in physics. A Brookings study found that 20 percent of all jobs require “a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.” That’s four times the number of jobs in the economy formally designated as STEM.

President Obama’s promising STEM education initiatives in the first term have largely disappeared from view. Yet his focus on K-12 math and science education — including a commitment to prepare 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next decade — is urgently needed, considering the United States’ disappointing math scores. Basic knowledge of math and science is the bare minimum for a citizen in today’s world, regardless of career ch