While there is a near universal agreement that not enough STEM graduates end up in STEM jobs, there is disagreement as to why this is, what should be done about it, and who must take the lead in addressing these problems.
The U.S. industry in general, and technology-based sectors in particular, have decried the lack of STEM professionals and have called on everyone from government, educational institutions and non-profits to take steps to address the shortages. As I’ve discussed in numerous blogs, a growing number of companies (including IBM, General Electric, Intel, Exxon Mobil and many others) are taking matters into their own hands. They are sponsoring competitions and after-school workshops, funding scholarships and fellowships, helping universities create curricula and train instructors and helping their own employees identify promising career paths by providing skills maps and classes designed to prepare employees for future jobs.
Although such efforts are helpful, we need more—much more—if we are to provide an adequate pipeline of qualified STEM graduates, through all steps of the educational system, into STEM jobs. The first steps are to understand:
- Why declining percentages of American students graduate with STEM degrees; and
- Why so many of those that do graduate do not end up in STEM professions.
Leakage in the STEM Education Pipeline
As discussed in my July 31 blog, The United States’ Clogged Technology Education-to-Employment Pipeline, our shortage of STEM professionals begins in primary and secondary school and gets worse in every stage of the education pipeline.
According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, less than one-third of elementary school students are considered to be either proficient or advanced in science. This percentage declines steadily, to 21%, by the time they reach 12th grade. These declines are highlighted in international comparisons, with the OECD’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings placing U.S. 15-year-olds below the median ranking among 30 OECD countries in each of the three tested areas. They rank 16th in reading, 21st in science and 29th in math.
These deficiencies, however, have not discouraged college-bound students from pursuing STEM majors. Despite the fact that the 2011 ACT test found only 45% of graduates prepared for college-level math courses, and only 30% prepared for science courses, the percentage of incoming freshman who initially plan to major in STEM fields has increased dramatically (to 34% in 2009) from their lows in the 1980s and 1990s.
These plans, however, don’t last long. After getting a sampling of the rigors of college-level STEM classes, many switch majors to less demanding disciplines. In fact, while the number of college graduates has increased by 29% from 2001 through 2009, the number of engineering graduates grew by only 19% and the number of computer and information science grads actually fell (by 14%). A 2011 study by McKinsey Global Institute, “An economy that works: Job creation and America’s future,” generally confirms these trends, citing a meager 0.8% per year growth in the number of STEM graduates—significantly less than fields such as business, social science, humanities and arts.
Worse still, many of those that do graduate do not end up in STEM careers. According to one of the most comprehensive U.S. studies to date, only one-third of STEM graduates actually end up with jobs in these fields (see the below cited Lowell and Salzman study).
Causes of STEM Pipeline Leakage—Follow the Money
A preponderance of industry experts, analysts and educators, as discussed in the above-referenced “Pipeline” report, place the primary blame on a range of factors. These include:
- A culture that does not sufficiently value technical skills;
- A student body that shuns hard work and study required of STEM disciplines; and
- Big gaps in all levels of the educational system—from a lack of qualified teachers and mentors in primary and secondary schools, a disconnect between colleges that educate future professionals and the companies that hope to employ them and a large pool of STEM graduates that lack the skills required for the jobs companies are looking to fill; and
- Corporate training and educational systems that are ill-suited to the continual education, skills refresh and new skills training requirements of a dynamic jobs market.
This skills mismatch, or skills gap, is becoming severe. According to McKinsey’s “An economy that works” study, 40% of companies with plans to hire in the next 12 months have had positions open for six months or longer, because they couldn’t find the right candidate—candidates with degrees in the appropriate field and/or relevant work experience. Although these needs span all types of jobs, the most difficult occupations to fill are in management, science and engineering, followed by computer programming and IT. The study also highlights a big emerging gap in statisticians and mathematicians who can handle “big data” and, in the future, fill the rapidly growing need for health care professionals.
There is, however, an alternate school of thought, not only as to the causes and remedies of a STEM skills gap, but also as to whether such a gap even exists. For example, a 2007 and a 2009 follow-up study by B. Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman, Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline, claim:
- There has been no decline in the total number of STEM graduates;
- The number of graduates is sufficient to meet demand; and that
- Many of these graduates are adequately qualified and prepared for available jobs.
According to their research, the primary problem is that only one-third of these graduates end up taking jobs in the fields in which they graduate. This drop-off, which began in the 1990s, spans all levels of students, from lower through upper quintiles. The drop, however, is particularly steep among those with the highest SAT/ACT scores and GPA averages—i.e., the best and the brightest of STEM graduates. Although their research does not show the reasons for this leakage from STEM careers, the authors see two possible reasons:
- Growing numbers of graduates are going into jobs that, while not specifically categorized as STEM, entail STEM skills—jobs such as patent law, medical sales and management in technology firms; and
- Growing numbers of the most qualified graduates end up taking jobs in fields that offer higher salaries (such as finance), more prestige and more varied experiences (such as consulting) or more flexible career paths (such as management).
In their view, the conclusion that today’s graduates are not qualified for STEM careers is “not supported by this data.” They believe that the primary problem is that the rewards of STEM careers are not sufficiently attractive to retain the best and the brightest graduates. Their primary recipe for attracting these graduates to STEM careers: increase pay.
Lowell and Salzman’s diagnosis of the problem and prescription for the solution are shared by others. Vivek Wadhwa of Duke and Berkeley Universities, in particular, has long argued that there is no shortage in STEM talent. The problems, as he lays them out in a TechCrunch face-off with ex-Intel chief Craig Barrett, are three-fold:
- Much of the nation’s talent is “bottled-up” in the form of postdocs (post-doctoral fellows hoping to get a faculty appointments) who are locked into a broken university technology education system;
- U.S. government policy makes it increasingly difficult and unattractive for foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities—who account for half of all U.S. STEM Masters and PhD graduates—to remain in the U.S.; and
- Technology firms do not pay top graduates what they are worth, particularly relative to finance and consulting companies.
Causes of the STEM Pipeline Leakage—A Skills Gap
Not all studies come to the same conclusions. The U.K., which faces a similar issue in which half of its STEM graduates take jobs in other fields, launched a series of studies into the reasons. Although these studies certainly admit a loss to higher-paying career paths, they, as concluded in a 2010 study, Shaping Up for Innovation: Are we delivering the right skills for the 2020 knowledge economy, also find some evidence for the possibility that some STEM graduates do not have the skills required to meet employer needs.
The authors cite a 2008 CBI (Confederation of British Industry) study finding that 42% of employers see the quality of graduates as a major barrier to STEM recruitment. A 2009 study that examined The Demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Skills, meanwhile, found that the occupations in which many of these STEM graduates actually end up, pay significantly less than jobs in STEM and finance. (A Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce compilation of U.S. salaries and unemployment rates by college major shows that STEM and finance jobs also tend to pay significantly better than, and have lower unemployment rates than, do jobs in most other fields.)
So, if STEM and finance pay better, and offer better employment prospects than do other fields, why would so many STEM grads shun these higher-paying fields to take jobs outside of the areas they had studied? According to the Demand for STEM Skills and the Shaping up for Innovation studies’ authors, there must be “some kind of mismatch between the type of skills STEM graduates have, and the type of skills sought in science occupations.” They do, however, plan to commission additional research to determine the extent to which these patterns are attributable to a skills mismatch, rather than individual choice.
What are these mismatches? Although they vary by sector, the CBI survey shows that employers’ primary concerns relate to candidates’ technical and practical skills. There is, however, a broad overarching concern that STEM candidates lack a number of softer skills in areas including problem solving, commercial awareness, team working, communication, interdisciplinary perspective and empathy for different points of view. (Note that this list is quite similar to that posed in my October 30th blog, Core skills Required in a Knowledge Economy.)
This all leads to a number of questions that I will address in subsequent blogs and in my planned book—what can be done do address these skills gaps and mismatches? What should students do today to ensure that they are best equipped to capture the jobs and build the careers of the future?