More STEM degrees may not equal more jobs

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.”

More recently, Scott’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform released a report recommending slightly discounted tuition for students pursuing certain majors — primarily STEM. Though Scott has not yet formally embraced the proposal (his office says he’s reviewing it), the idea has sparked a backlash from humanities professors who feel their departments are being marginalized.

A group of frustrated University of Florida history professors recently launched a petition against the two-tiered pricing idea. The petition, which has gathered more than 1,800 signatures, predicts the state’s focus on steering students into so-called “strategic areas of emphasis” will wreak havoc on English, history, and psychology departments, among others.

UF associate professor Lillian Guerra, who teaches Cuban & Caribbean History, helped organize the petition. Guerra said UF’s nationally ranked Center for Latin American Studies — the nation’s oldest, started in 1930 — was struggling even before this new idea of discounting STEM. After state lawmakers chopped about one-third of all Florida universities’ funding in the past five years, Guerra said the center had to reduce the number of graduate students it admitted. That reduction in turn forced UF to hold fewer seminars — reducing its spotlight on the national stage.

Guerra, who left a teaching job at Yale to come to UF, said history, like all departments, is funded by the number of students it enrolls. Making history majors more expensive, she argued, would inevitably reduce the total number of students, meaning further cuts to an already-damaged department.

“Long term, the destruction of the prestige of our program is inevitable if this continues,” Guerra said.

Those who say history majors don’t get jobs should look at former students who work in public health or as high school teachers, Guerra said, adding that she has signed about a dozen law school letters of recommendation for students so far this semester.

Despite being mocked by Florida’s governor, anthropologists have been deemed important to national security by the U.S. Department of Defense. Its recent study on STEM-related workforce needs found that the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology,” and it recommended “ongoing investment” in those two areas, even as the wars wind down.

Why did anthropology show up in a military STEM report? By some definitions, anthropology is a STEM field. There is no clear, universally accepted definition of what careers comprise STEM, making it easy for job projections to be radically altered based on what industries are counted.

An October report by Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity boasted that Florida’s online job postings in STEM fields were up 10 percent over a year ago, but those rosy numbers leaned heavily on healthcare-related jobs — an area not always categorized as STEM. Nursing jobs were by far the most represented in the jobs report, accounting for more than 1 in 4 of the total STEM jobs identified.

A generally pro-STEM report produced this year by Change the Equation (an organization advocating improved science education) contained a sour note when it came to Florida: When healthcare was not counted, the report found Florida was one of six states with more unemployed STEM workers than available STEM jobs. Of those six states, Florida had the biggest oversupply of STEM workers.

The questions about whether Florida truly needs more STEM graduates hasn’t dampened state lawmakers’ enthusiasm for encouraging more STEM degrees. The tuition discount proposal from the governor’s task force has a good chance of becoming law during the upcoming legislative session, according to Senate President Don Gaetz. Gaetz said the Republican-led Legislature strongly wants college graduates to be equipped with real job skills, though he acknowledged that STEM majors aren’t the only way to get there.

“It would be a mistake for us to worship at the altar of STEM, as though every STEM degree results in a job and every non-STEM degree doesn’t,” said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican. “That’s an oversimplification, and the facts don’t bear that out.”

The new STEM tuition proposal, if implemented, would run counter to a national trend of universities charging more for STEM courses, not less. Because of lab facilities and small class sizes, STEM courses are among the most expensive for colleges to teach. As it stands now, STEM majors are already subsidized by students in other subjects.

Almost a year ago, the presidents of UF and Florida State University asked the Legislature for permission to raise prices for STEM majors, but that request was denied.

But if the STEM discount tuition went into effect, there’s a chance the sheer difficulty of STEM majors would limit its impact. Retention of STEM students has long been a national problem, as students sometimes grow frustrated with a particularly challenging course and decide to switch majors. Math classes are a common stumbling block.

At Florida International University, where only about a third of students pass college algebra, Provost Douglas Wartzok said the school opened a math mastery lab this fall to boost student performance. Though FIU has about 7,500 undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields — and is the nation’s No. 1 producer of Hispanic STEM grads — Wartzok said he is following a “very balanced approach.” STEM degrees are encouraged, but so are other academic pursuits.

Wartzok had some reservations about making STEM degrees cheaper.

In an e-mail, Wartzok wrote that a broad liberal arts education prepares students for a lifetime of occupations by developing “critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and effective oral and written communication.”

“Most of the jobs our students are taking upon graduation didn’t exist when they started high school,” he wrote. “Hence if we focus them on the career needs of today without giving them a strong liberal arts foundation, they will be trained for jobs that won’t exist when they graduate.”

Statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Education show that the ability of STEM grads to find a job varies greatly by major. Among 2009-10 school year graduates, only 49 percent of those with a bachelor’s in biology were employed; for a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering, the number rose to 83 percent.

In the social sciences, anthropology grads reported a 49 percent employment rate, while 60 percent of psychology grads said they were employed.

The method of gathering such figures isn’t perfect, according to State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan. Students who take a job in another state aren’t counted. Neither are those who attend an out-of-state grad school.

Brogan said he could support a two-tiered tuition system, with STEM costing less, so long as it was implemented cautiously and with universities having some control. In the meantime, he said he’s working to better track the STEM areas where Florida is not producing enough graduates — and also those where the state is graduating too many.

In 2009-10, Brogan said a state analysis projected a need for 467 new industrial engineers. Florida state schools graduated 180.

At the other end of the spectrum were mechanical engineers, of which the state needed an additional 236. State universities more than tripled that number, graduating 847.

For a STEM tuition discount to work, Brogan said there needs to be a surgical approach that evaluates the market for each specific degree, without broad generalizations. And he warned that predicting future employment needs is an inexact science.

“Trying to look beyond the horizon gets to be a very fuzzy issue, very quickly,” Brogan said.