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More Math/Science Majors Than Jobs: STEM Push Skews Market?

One of the key planks of Governor Dennis Daugaard's failed education reform package this year was a push for more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates. But do we really need more students going into math and science? New research suggests that the United States is producing plenty of STEM graduates:

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 [Michael Vasquez, "More STEM Degrees May Not Equal More Jobs," Miami Herald, 2012.12.08].

If I were a big tech company, I'd love to see a glut of workers drive down my labor costs. But I'm not convinced that our state government should do the bidding of any particular industry. With the economy changing so quickly (sure, the Bakken boom demands certain science and tech skills now, but will those jobs be around five or ten years from now?), schools may do better to focus on providing students a good grounding in the always useful humanities, in the knowledge of our history and culture that will never become obsolete. Let the market respond to its own needs, and let public education focus on creating good citizens.



  1. tonyamert 2012.12.10

    We're pushing out a ton of STEM majors, but a lot of them are in areas that just don't have any industry pull. Biotech has an insane glut right now. You can hire incredibly well trained Bio post docs for $30k/year.

    In contrast, my research group can't produce BS/MS/PhD's fast enough. We're constantly getting calls from aerospace companies trying to jockey for our graduates. But we're in a super specialized area, so that has a lot to do with it. Our BS/MS students are pulling in starting salaries from $85-95k/year.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.10

    Tony, are the biotech labor glut and aerospace labor shortage momentary problems? How long will it take the market to correct itself? Does the public school system need to respond?

  3. tonyamert 2012.12.11

    Well, one key problem is that not everyone is cut out for engineering. It takes a very specific mind set to be successful at it. And it's very competitive, if you don't pull your weight you get dumped (I can't stress this enough, if you're an average engineer your coworkers will eat you alive, we're very competitive and merit based). I don't know if the traditional market correction mechanisms will work in any meaningful way to correct the imbalance quickly. We can't just dump in 5x the normal amount of people into engineering and expect to get out 5x the normal number of engineers. I feel that engineers self select into engineering programs pretty well right now. I don't think that it's a big recruitment problem. So, I definitely don't think that there is anything the school systems can do.

    I personally feel that salaries will be the correction mechanism. Right now @ SDSMT you can identify the better paying engineering disciplines by their enrollment levels. Mining and Geological, for example, has exploded over the last couple of years due to industry pull. However, this is going to be a very slow correction process since it's being driven by industry pull. There are many levels that it will have to works its way down to have a major impact.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.13

    Indeed: no matter how hard the industry pulls, we can't get more engineers to them for at least a full college-education cycle, if not longer, especially if we need the school system to respond by hiring more faculty.

    Curious: does the new doctoral program in physics the Regents approved yesterday respond to market needs? Or is it just an attempt to reinforce the Homestake Lab?

  5. Donald Pay 2012.12.13

    The job market in biotech is localized. If you legislate against stem cell research, as some states have (SD?), you cut yourself off from one big sector that hires biotech and bioengineering grads. It sends the wrong message to students interested in biotech if you stick your head in the4 sand about stem cells.

    Madison, WI, has been a hotbed of biotech and the University and tech college here have been pumping out graduates with good biotech skills for 12 years. Right now the market here is good, but I can imagine it's going to be saturated soon, even here with lots of little start ups in stem cells, larger drug companies and biofuels companies. Health care has a pretty consistent need for biotech.

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