Science, technology, engineering and math — the fields collectively known as STEM — are all the rage these days. Florida state leaders are so eager for more STEM students that they may even create discounted college tuition for students who pursue those fields.
In an economy that is still struggling to regain its footing, boosting STEM is seen by many as a path to jobs.
Except ... what if it isn’t?
As STEM has become an education buzzword in recent years, a steady stream of research has emerged that challenges the notion of STEM as an economic elixir. In some STEM careers, the employment picture is downright lousy.
“Record Unemployment Among Chemists in 2011,” screamed the March headline in Science magazine’s Careers Blog. A headline from June: “What We Need is More Jobs for Scientists.”
Unemployment in STEM fields is still well below the general population (and slightly below college graduates in general). That “record” unemployment for chemists, for example, was 4.6 percent, compared to overall U.S. unemployment at that time of 8.8 percent.
Nevertheless, the glut of workers in some STEM areas (resulting in flat wages, and STEM grads forced to take jobs in non-STEM fields) directly contradicts the widely held view that the United States — and Florida — suffer from a critical shortage of qualified STEM graduates. The truth, many experts say, is more complicated.
“In a general sense, science and innovation do create jobs and drive growth,” said Elizabeth Popp Berman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany whose book Creating the Market University examines the history of university research and its economic impact. “As a nation, having lots of scientists and people inventing stuff is good for us.”
But that doesn’t mean all STEM graduates have a guaranteed job, Berman stressed. The STEM employment picture, Berman said, is “very mixed” and largely dependent upon a student’s particular major. Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not.
Some studies, meanwhile, have challenged the notion of an overall STEM worker shortage — instead finding that the United States is producing vastly more STEM graduates than there are STEM jobs awaiting them. As science organizations and corporations continue to sound the STEM shortage alarm, critics charge that these groups are motivated by self-interest — tech companies, for example, have claimed a shortage of trained workers even as they laid off thousands of U.S. employees, and moved those jobs to low-wage developing countries.
“It’s a way for them to sort of excuse why they’re shifting so much work offshore,” said Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, who has testified before Congress on the need to tighten the legal loopholes that allow such maneuvers.
Deciphering what economic benefits STEM offers — and what it doesn’t — has become more important as Gov. Rick Scott continues to strongly advocate investing more state resources promoting STEM-related degrees. At the same time, Scott has sometimes mocked liberal arts majors as impractical.
Speaking to a Tallahassee business group last year, Scott asked: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”