STEM Careers--and STEM Skills in Other Careers

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
One indication that an idea is catching on is that the President of the United States refers to it frequently. In recent remarks by President Obama, I’ve been pleased to hear mentions of STEM careers and STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Two recent articles have pointed out the rewards of STEM careers and the barriers to them.

Last month, my former ETS colleague Anthony Carnevale and his research team at Georgetown University released a report about the career experiences of people who majored in STEM subjects. Analyzing Census data, they found that, on average, 65 percent of those holding a bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject out-earn those with a master’s degree in a non-STEM subject. And an associate degree in a STEM subject brings in a higher income than a non-STEM bachelor’s for 63 percent of those surveyed.

The Georgetown researchers also found that STEM degrees are excellent on-ramps for careers in medicine and in management, career changes that can lead to higher income than staying in a STEM work role. They note that although the traditional STEM career fields employ only 5 percent of the workforce, the need for STEM competencies keeps increasing in other fields. For example, along with the rapid growth in the number of technology products, there’s a growing need for an appropriately skilled sales workforce. So, even though the STEM career field is growing at a pace exceeded only by health-care careers, the careers that are competing for STEM-competent workers (including many health-care occupations) are among the fastest-growing and highest-paid in the economy.

Given this growing need for STEM-skilled workers in a broad range of occupations, it is not necessarily alarming that (as Carnevale et al. found) 43 percent of STEM grads immediately go off to work in non-STEM careers. To be sure, I’d rather see engineering graduates go on to engineer bridges instead of financial derivatives. Nevertheless, market forces will divert STEM talent to many non-STEM work roles, and many of those roles will benefit our economy.

What is alarming, however, is how many young people don’t even get as far as the initial STEM degree. Carnevale and his team estimate that our K–12 educational system turns out enough students with initial STEM skills to fill the labor market’s need for STEM-skilled workers, but more than 75 percent of them do not go on to develop their potential by majoring in STEM subjects. Furthermore, of those who do major in STEM subjects, 38 percent switch to another subject or drop out of college. This is twice the combined attrition rate for all other subjects.

An article last week in The New York Times investigated the reasons for this massive leak in the collegiate STEM pipeline. The main reason seems to be the inherent difficulty of the STEM curriculums. This is not helped by the high level of competition often found there. It’s significant that the highly selective colleges, which get the best students, also have higher STEM attrition rates. Evidently, the problem is not that the students are poorly prepared or lack good work habits.

GPAs tend to be lower in the STEM majors, and grade inflation in the non-STEM majors may be part of the reason. Another factor discouraging STEM majors may be the emphasis on theory, especially in the lower-division courses. Some STEM faculty members are experimenting with using project-centered curriculums to sustain the interest of the students. The traditional engineering major leads to a senior design thesis, but for many students this opportunity to turn STEM skills to practical applications comes too late.

It’s important to understand that a specific college degree, while it provides useful quantitative evidence for researchers, does not tell the whole story about the skills a young person acquires. A friend of mine dropped out of the engineering curriculum at a highly competitive engineering school and graduated with a degree in a humanities field. He would be considered a STEM dropout, but the STEM skills he acquired in high school and during the two years of engineering curriculum that he completed served as the foundation for a very successful career in technical sales.

You may also consider me a STEM dropout. Although I gave up on a STEM career goal well before entering college, I have had a lifelong interest in science and managed to acquire enough STEM skills to hold my present job, in which I spend a lot of time (sometimes days on end) working in databases and spreadsheets, even occasionally writing programs.

As Carnevale and his team found, the need for STEM skills in non-STEM occupations (even writing!) keeps growing. Educational policymakers need to do more than just encourage students to get STEM degrees. They need to ensure that the curriculum of everyone in high school and college includes STEM subjects and imparts STEM skills.


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