The Inconvenient Truth About STEM Careers – Part One

A paltry 50% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates are employed in STEM fields, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). That’s a much starker picture than commonly seen, showing the disconnect between the reality and the rhetoric of STEM careers.

The data shows that there is no STEM shortage, but a ‘STEM majors willing to work for cheap’ shortage, while demand for STEM skills rises.

Further illustrating the disconnect, the EPI reports that among Computer Science degree holders not employed in a STEM field, about half took another job because of career prospects and one third couldn’t find an IT job.

The data is similar for those with Engineering degrees not employed in STEM fields, with about one third going elsewhere because of career prospects and one third being unable to find a job.

The idea of a shortage is further discredited by the EPI, which notes that 68% of workers in IT, which comprises approximately 59% of all STEM careers, do NOT have a computer related degree and 31% don’t have a STEM degree, period.

Many of the shortage claims are based around statistics using the estimated number of future STEM graduates, which fails to include the large portion of IT workers that don’t and likely will not have STEM degrees.

Research by Georgetown clarifies the reality of the IT field and the 50% of STEM grads working in non-STEM fields. The study found that there is high demand for STEM core competencies, even in fields outside STEM.

Interestingly, this correlates with a recent Gallup Poll that found a desire for ‘real-world skills’ amongst students such as, “collaboration, knowledge construction, skilled communication, global awareness, self-regulation, real-world problem-solving and technology used in learning.”

The skills listed in the Gallup Poll strongly correlate with the STEM skills found in the Georgetown study, such as active learning, critical thinking and complex problem solving. This need for STEM type skills, and the failure of overall education to instill them in students, is part of the reason STEM graduates work in non-STEM fields.

The realization that many STEM jobs are filled by non-STEM grads explains some information from Change the Equation. Change the Equation found that STEM job openings outnumber unemployed STEM candidates almost 2:1.

The numbers are broken down by specific fields within STEM as follows: 1.4:1 for computer programmers, 4:1 for network and computer systems administration, 1.3:1 electrical and electronic engineering, 3:1 for industrial, health and safety engineering, 1:2 civil engineering, and 3.2:1 for healthcare occupations that require STEM.

Companies like Microsoft exemplify the data from Change the Equation. However, EPI’s analysis of Microsoft shows that while Microsoft cites an unfilled 6,000 jobs, they laid off approximately 5,000 during the recent recession.

This ‘cataclysmic shortage’ could be largely solved by rehiring those that were laid off, a large portion of whom remain unemployed. The numbers for other tech companies have a similar correlation. Why are STEM graduates choosing non-STEM careers and why does unemployment persist amongst STEM graduates if there are more than double the job postings needed for full employment?

In Part Two of this series, we discuss some possible answers for this question, as well as the current and potential impacts of immigration policy (specifically dealing with H-1B visas), what it all means and what you should do because of it.