What STEM Shortage?

Robert Charette writes The Stem Crisis is a Myth in September’s IEEE Spectrum, arguing that the engineering training shortage predicted in recent years is a long-term societal habit that has little basis in reality.  We have all seen organizations from the White House to local universities and school districts, plus movers and shakers including CEO’s of several technology companies warn that the United States is in danger of losing its competitive advantage due to a lack of trained technologists ready to innovate for home-grown companies. In fact this same story repeats throughout the world- one common trope in India is that there is an overabundance of programmers, but not enough mid-level managers for all the available job slots. Charette argues that the STEM crisis is a decadal myth, and that massive numbers of STEM-trained graduates simply don’t work in STEM-related fields because there just aren’t enough jobs. Why? For one, the Great Recession was supposed to end, and with its demise there was to be a major uptick in STEM hiring. Unfortunately the rebound has not materialized; Charette points out that as recently as 2011 more than 370,000 science and engineering jobs were lost in the U.S. alone.  As for the Robot Futures spin: “Many STEM jobs today are also targets for outsourcing or replacement for automation.” The companies might rebound, but STEM jobs could easily lag as the Baxters of the future press onward.  Charette goes on to present some fairly odd hypotheses for why the STEM myth is perpetuated: governments want an overabundance of STEM-trained folks because it makes a country likelier to succeed; industry wants STEM oversupply because salaries can stay low in a sellers market. I am not sure I can buy that level of deception, but rather I think as the bleeding edge of automation etches away at the boundaries of employable STEM training, we will always witness a lag educationally: we will keep training new human engineers for jobs that machines do years beyond the obvious stopping point. Welcome to the delayed feedback cycle of the “invisible hand.”

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