On March 15, TechCrunch produced a very informative debate between Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel and huge proponent of technology education, and Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke/UC-Berkeley professor who writes extensively on innovation, entrepreneurship and cross-border movement of technology talent.
The debate was spawned by a Wadhwa comments in a Scientific American article that claimed there is no shortage of tech talent in the U.S. To summarize a debate, which must be read in its entirety to be fully understood, Wadhwa claims there is plenty of talent in the form of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent in this country. The problem is that much of this talent is in the form of postdocs (post-doctoral fellows) that are bottled up in a broken university technology education system, and in foreign-born PhDs who, once they receive degrees from U.S. universities, find it increasingly difficult or unattractive to remain in the U.S. If the artificial economic and political restraints were removed, and STEM PhDs were actually paid what they were worth, this talent would be unleashed and produce the type of innovation and jobs that the U.S. so desperately needs.
Barrett views things differently. Although he acknowledges that some postdoc PhD’s do not achieve their commercial market potential, he claims that this is due to their decisions to dedicate their efforts to the long, uncertain process of becoming tenured professors at research universities, rather than working at corporations. In his view, the real problem lies in our K-12 education system, which, due largely to the lack of qualified science and mathematics teachers, fails to ignite children’s’ imaginations around the opportunities in these disciplines and fails to provide a foundational knowledge for university study.
Wadhwa certainly acknowledges the limitations in the U.S. K-12 education system and the need to create “excitement about science and engineering at the national level and motivate our best and brightest to become engineers and scientists.” He, however, clams that the biggest problem is pay. The scientific community in general and the educational system in particular, simply do not pay enough to retain the best talent. These people are lured by the huge the huge rewards promised by the financial industry (such as becoming venture capitalists or investment bank “quants “), rather than become research scientists who drive U.S. innovation.
While the debate is fascinating, it appears to me that Wadhwa over-generalizes the admittedly disturbing dilemma of postdocs. Just because some STEM PhDs remain in poorly paid fellowships (with hopes of earning valued professorships) rather than going to industry, it does not necessarily mean either that:
- There are not enough jobs for STEM graduates; or that
- STEM professions do not pay competitively.
True, not all STEM PhDs can become professors at prestigious research universities. On other hand, not all law school graduates can win U.S. Supreme Court clerkships or highly paid posts at premier white shoe law firms. That, however, does not stop students from overwhelming law school admissions offices. Nor do the short odds of becoming professional athletes, actors or musicians prevent millions of young adults from aspiring to these careers.
Even if there are not enough tenured professorships, PhDs who do need jobs can always “stoop” to work in the private sector. Nor should we confine the analysis of STEM jobs to PhDs. There are, after all, far more Bachelor and Master-level STEM graduates than there are PhDs. Most statistics show that newly minted STEM graduates have higher employment rates than other job categories (even during the recession) and that by far, the largest percentage of unfilled jobs utilize STEM-related skills. Moreover, starting salaries for these graduates remain among the highest of those for all degrees. As shown in a March 2010 Association of Colleges and Employers study, for example, engineering and IT jobs account for all ten of the top ten earning degrees.
Although some segments of the financial services industry certainly pay more for a handful of the best graduates from the best schools, this cannot be viewed as the standard for all STEM jobs—just as Wall Street law firm salaries cannot be viewed as the standards for all JDs from all law schools. These numbers are too small, and their selection criteria too limited to apply to all graduates.
In sum, I generally agree with Craig Barrett that most people—especially young people—are driven as much by their passions as by the immediate opportunities for monetary rewards. There are, however, limits to this idealism. Pay must yield reasonably comfortable lifestyles and must at least be in the same ballpark as reasonably competitive fields. Although most STEM careers probably meet these criteria (except when compared with financial services, professional sports or entertainment), the big exception is in K-12 STEM education.
Unfortunately, it will take much more than competitive salaries to fix this country’s K-12 education system. Its problems are far too complex and ingrained to be solved by the education community alone. As I have discussed in many of my articles, solving these problems will require a huge amount of assistance from the private sector.
A number of private sector companies—especially IT companies, like Intel, Microsoft and IBM—are already doing great work in helping to improve education at all levels, from K through graduate schools. They are giving schools some of the tools and the training required to improve teaching and learning and helping them improve STEM curricula.
Some are even attempting to address the intense social and peer pressures against becoming “geeks” and “nerds” by demonstrating that STEM skills can be instrumental in achieving the goals of many young adults—to make a real difference in the world. As discussed in my report on IBM’s Academic Initiative, IBM is doing particularly interesting work in engaging student’s desire to make a difference in the world by showing how STEM skills are so critical to addressing some of society’s most pressing problems, as around smarter healthcare, energy and food supplies.
With all due respect to Intel’s wonderful commercials, it may be too much to hope to persuade kids to view scientists, engineers and mathematicians with the same admiration and awe as rock stars or professional athletes. It may, however, be possible to engage at least some part of their minds, psyches and self esteem around the idea of helping the world solve real problems. Perhaps someday, children focused on such missions may even earn the respect, if not necessarily the admiration, of their peers.