Although a recent study found that almost 75 percent of those who have science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees have jobs in other fields, policymakers, advocates and executives continue to push STEM education as a way to close achievement gaps and produce U.S. innovation.
Senior officials with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy say the focus on STEM education is a response to global achievement trends, with an effort to develop students’ skills rather than drive them to specific careers. Officials point to 12 countries that have higher test scores in science and 17 with higher scores in math.
Experts say that STEM education builds basic skills for all students, skills that make it easier to find a job in almost any field. The Obama administration has set a goal of producing 1 million additional STEM undergraduate degree holders by 2022, with an emphasis on teaching students how to explore the scientific method and to increase critical thinking at early ages.
“There’s no question for us that in order to compete and win in an innovation economy, we have to do better to develop strong skills in STEM learning,” said Roberto Rodriguez, deputy assistant to the president for education. “Teaching in our schools needs to be informed by the science of learning and support real-world knowledge and experiences for our students.”
But some economists and labor analysts see a different story regarding STEM, noting data that they say shows no need for additional graduates in many STEM-related fields.
Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, says there is no shortage of STEM workers. He says that technology companies profess a need for STEM employees, allowing them to push for lower-paid workers and to reform education policies to help their corporate goals.
“Wages have been stagnant at 1990s levels, the same as when Bill Clinton was president,” Salzman said. “It’s not a belief, it’s the data.”
He says there is no compelling evidence to support claims of worker shortages, using the example of engineering, which has the highest rate of college graduates going into the field. Salzman says there are 50 percent more graduates than there are jobs, sending people to other disciplines for work.
Others say looking strictly at such data ignores what is happening in the job market. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said it’s important to look at people getting jobs across the spectrum and putting their STEM backgrounds to use in myriad ways.
“The report misses the point when you talk about people with bachelor’s degrees not being in STEM jobs,” Hrabowski said. “I think the analysis is not taking into account a lot of complicated factors.”
Hrabowski, a mathematician, said students at UMBC get jobs before they graduate because of the need for talented workers in fields such as information technology. His university has been praised for innovation, because it works to teach students to collaborate, find patterns and learn scientifically, he said. Hrabowski says reform at the K-12 level will develop better-prepared college students, which in turn will produce graduates capable of filling almost any job.
James Brown, executive director of the D.C.-based STEM Education Coalition, says that even in a bad economy, STEM wages generally remain steady while other occupations see significant drops. He also says success is often seen in the employability of STEM grads, rather than what kind of job the graduates land.
“The reward for an engineering degree is better career success,” Brown said. “There are no guarantees in this economy, but you know you’re going to do better if you’re in a STEM field than any other field.”
Brown says he would like to see the country make elementary and secondary math and science as fundamental as English, which would give more U.S. students basic skills and learning strategies to succeed, whether as an auto mechanic or a physicist.
“We want to make sure the education system is aligned with where the jobs will be. . . . The future of the economy is going to STEM skills,” Brown said.
Ryan Carson has a degree in computer science, but he is working in a non-STEM occupation, in part because he believes U.S. higher education doesn’t do a good job teaching students modern technologies.
Carson, co-founder and chief executive of Treehouse, took this complaint and turned it into a business that helps teach people skills in Web, mobile and business development. He says business models like his — less expensive and with a focus on specific skills — will help draw minorities and students with lower incomes into STEM fields.
Treehouse has 72,000 students, many of whom joined to sharpen existing skills, not to get a new job, he says. Carson says there is an “explosion” in jobs requiring computer coding, an area of study many schools don’t support. With job-specific training, he says, students can learn quickly if the area isn’t right for them, at little cost.
“Worst-case scenario, you realize coding isn’t for you and you lose $25 and a month of your time,” Carson said.
Nam Pham, 21, a rising senior at the University of Virginia, says he sees a future in STEM. As a summer intern with Honeywell and a passion for STEM education, he thinks he has a good shot at a job after college.
Pham has seen friends get jobs shortly after graduation because of their high-level skills, especially those who study math. But he says there are some limits, and he sees peers choosing other fields as a result.
“There are a finite number of jobs. . . . The best and brightest get hired, the rest don’t get those jobs,” Pham said.
David Cote, Honeywell’s chief executive, says the education debate is an issue of spending more efficiently to teach STEM to see better payoffs. Cote, a member of the Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, points to more than 100 programs receiving federal funding for education, but a lack of synergy with the groups.
“We’ve got really great intent and really poor execution,” Cote said.
Cote says STEM education improves employment and innovation, which in turn brings more people into the field to solve problems and create new solutions.