A Solution for a Bygone Era

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three articles about the push to increase the number of students in science, math, and engineering. The other articles can be found here and here. )  

If there’s one issue that defines the upcoming election, it is unemployment—high unemployment rates, worse underemployment rates, and a total workforce that is diminishing through frustration at not finding suitable employment. The commonly reported U-3 measure of unemployment is in its fourth straight year over 8 percent—and if the labor force were the same size as it was in 2007, it would be over 11 percent.

The nation’s governing powers have not been able to bring back jobs. One reason is that the establishment continues to base policies on assumptions that are rooted in a bygone era. One of those is to educate more young people in the “STEM” disciplines, “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.”  The idea is that these majors will not only train students for specific careers, but will lead to valuable innovations and spur economic growth.

This solution goes hand in hand with another belief, that increasing the numbers of all college graduates will ensure prosperity. Yet this is proving not to be the case: despite the fact that annual U.S. college graduates increased by 50 percent between 2002 and 2011, our economy has not advanced. If more graduates were the answer, we would not be stuck in the most protracted slump since the Great Depression.

Many people are rightly rejecting the wasteful aspects of increasing graduates in general—many degree programs do little to prepare young people for the workplace. STEM subjects, on the other hand, teach serious job skills.

Yet deliberately increasing STEM graduates also misses the mark. It may have once been a way to spur growth, but it is no longer. Instead of filling needs and encouraging innovation, universities have been overproducing graduates in many of the STEM majors. The problem is not one of too little supply of STEM professionals, but of too little demand for their services.

Despite the paucity of jobs, there is no shortage of supposed evidence in favor of more recruitment into STEM disciplines. For example, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce published a study in January called “Hard Times, Not All College Majors Are Created Equal.”

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the 2009-10 school year, “Hard Times” showed, for the most part, that STEM majors are more likely to be employed, both right out of college and after a few years, and that they tend to make higher salaries than other college graduates. Electrical engineers, for example, have an unemployment rate for recent graduates of 7.3 percent, lower than the national average for all recent graduates of 8.9 percent, and earn an average of $57,000 right out of school. Recent computer science graduates have a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, with an average salary of $50,000, while chemists have a 6.6 percent unemployment rate and average salaries of $32,000.

The study concludes that college students who wish to get ahead should major in STEM subjects, based on the employment rates for various majors.

“Hard Times” sounds intuitively correct—by itself. But looking at the situation from other perspectives reveals a different picture. To begin with, “Hard Times” counts all employment, not just employment in the major field. For a newly graduated chemist or engineer, a job selling cars is treated no differently than a coveted research or design position. It even counts part-time employment as fully employed, but the salary figures are restricted to full-time jobs—obviously making the employment outlook appear rosier than it is.

Also, STEM graduates are particularly susceptible to natural ability bias:  they have in abundance the qualities that all employers prefer, including intelligence, perseverance, diligence, and a sense of responsibility. It is likely that they would be employed at an equal or higher rate than most college graduates even if they had not attended college at all.

Looking at other data makes it clear that attaining a STEM degree is not a sure ticket to success for college students. The real story is that, in many scientific and technical specialties, there is not a shortage, as many business, political, and academic leaders claim, but a glut.

Chemistry is one discipline where some critics have been saying a glut has existed for a long time, and the evidence supports that claim. In the Georgetown Center’s “Hard Times” study, recently graduated chemistry majors had a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, suggesting that it is indeed a promising degree program for future graduates. But that study’s starting mean salary of $32,000 for chemists is surprisingly below average for all graduates, equal to those with sociology degrees.

One possible explanation for the low unemployment rate and low average salary is that many chemistry majors are working at jobs other than chemist. Another is that there is such a glut of entry-level chemists that employers can “low-ball” them when making offers.

To put chemists’ job prospects in perspective, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the total labor force was roughly 154 million jobholders in 2010. The economy is expected to add roughly 20.5 million new jobs by 2020, an increase of 14.3 percent.

In the natural, life, and resource sciences, jobs for scientists (those that require a bachelor’s degree, no more and no less) will grow at a 13 percent rate between 2010-2020, still less than the overall labor market. The largest BLS category among these types of scientists is “Chemists and Materials Scientists”; the profession is predicted to grow at a paltry 4 percent rate.

Other views of the chemistry profession are also bleak. The following graph is from the Indeed.com employment site, based on how many jobs for chemists are posted online; they were decreasing for the entire period except a few months in late 2007.


Making the picture even less encouraging is universities’ continued overproduction of chemists. According to the BLS, there were 90,900 bachelor-level chemists’ jobs in the U.S. in 2010, with another 4,000 expected to appear by 2020. In 2009, American colleges and universities conferred 12,144 B.S. degrees in chemistry. Should the number of degrees granted each year remain steady at that amount, by 2020 there would be 121,440 new chemists; every current chemist could leave his or her job in that period—a highly unrealistic proposition—and there would still be an excess of over 25,000 new chemists.

Of course, chemistry is a field where many jobs require advanced degrees, not just a B.S. While the BLS data used in the “Hard Times” study is for bachelor’s degrees only, the Indeed.com chart is for all types of chemists, indicating that the lack of job openings is for all education levels.

All of these facts point to the existence of a labor supply gut: available job postings have been shrinking for a decade; only anemic gains in the total number of jobs are expected for the next ten years; we are graduating more chemists than can be absorbed by the economy; starting salaries are exceptionally low, comparable to the salaries for degree-holders in subjects for which there is hardly any demand.

As I will show in a subsequent article, this over-production is not limited to chemists. Many types of engineering fields and computer fields have been struggling with similar labor supply problems. And yet the drumbeat continues, calling for more STEM graduates.