One of the myriad initiatives crammed into President Biden’s blockbuster Build Back Better Act is $3 billion in funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs at higher education institutions, with a particular focus on historically black colleges and universities. MIT and John Hopkins are a couple of the many other institutions that would benefit.
But this spending focus on STEM education will likely be squandered. Contrary to conventional wisdom, STEM degrees are not the automatic tickets to prosperity many assume them to be.
“America is not facing a deficit of STEM-educated graduates,” Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a partner in Montrose Lane, an energy-tech venture fund, wrote in his his recent book, The Cloud Revolution: How the Convergence of New Technologies Will Unleash the Next Economic Boom and a Roaring 2020s. “It is true that there is intense demand for and a shortage of people with certain specific degrees – especially in data analytics, machine learning, and AI. But overall, America produces each year roughly 50 percent more STEM graduates than there are STEM job openings.”
For years, the mantra has been that STEM degrees are future-proof, but in a fast-changing information- and service-centered modern economy, this is not proving to be the case.
“Of course STEM degrees and STEM literacy are important,” Mills added, “But non-STEM skills are required for the majority of jobs in the economy, even in most tech companies. There is a skills shortage in America, but the vast majority of shortages are found in the non-college skilled trades, from machine operators to technicians and welders, where a half a million openings are left unfilled each year.”
STEM jobs don’t even necessarily pay more. As David J. Deming, a Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discovered in research published in 2019, degrees like computer science and engineering do yield an income advantage immediately after graduation, but by age forty, liberal arts majors erase the gap.
Surprisingly, liberal arts majors are actually what high-tech firms are increasingly looking to hire. According to Mills:
“As Google, for one, recently revealed in the results of a comprehensive internal study, a STEM degree was the last on the list of the top eight qualities or skills found to be important for employee advancement. The others were so-called soft skills relating to communication and cooperation, and the need to be a “critical thinker.” Such skills are not necessarily associated with – and often completely absent from – what’s provided in a STEM curriculum.”
To the contrary, Deming argues that “soft skills” are more frequently taught in diversified liberal arts programs. Companies are increasingly prizing them because they make employees better able to learn and apply new skills in an ever-changing work environment.
Touting STEM education remains politically buzz-worthy, but in reality, it’s increasingly out of touch with what’s actually going on in the labor market.
Originally published by RealClearScience. Republished with permission.