Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

STEM Careers: Boom or Bust?

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

STEM Careers: Boom or Bust?

Article excerpt

A few years ago we were bombarded with dire predictions that since the nation had fallen behind in producing scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, dubbed STEM, we were spirally downward as a world power. Much of academia and the business world were scared. Scared enough to take action, which meant going to Washington.

Official Washington soon became convinced the crisis was real. With President George Bush's full support Congress appropriated millions of dollars to address the alleged shortcomings.

Higher education and secondary schools received significant grants to address this national need. Students were courted, not to learn their ABCs but to train for STEM careers. I, too, was convinced and wrote widely urging Hispanics to explore STEM careers. I believed the prevailing mantra and saw opportunities for Hispanics.

A Myth?

But life is not fair or predictable. Imagine my shock to read "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth" by Robert N. Charette. He is a respected contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum. He describes himself as a "risk ecologist" who investigates the impact of risk on technology and society. A 3 3-year member of the IEEE Computer Society he systematically lays out a convincing case that there is no crisis at all.

Charette points out that the supposed shortage was not limited to Americans. Many other developed or developing countries were convinced they faced similar shortages. Analysts said that "hundreds of thousands or even millions" of STEM professionals were needed worldwide.

In 2012 President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, stated that over the next decade, 1 million additional STEM graduates would be needed. The Royal Academy of Engineering reported that the U.K. would have to graduate 100,000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to stay even with demand. The prognostications were so frightening that governments everywhere allocated billions of dollars to train more STEM workers.

President Obama called for 10,000 new engineers every year and 100,000 additional STEM teachers by 2020. Further, temporary immigration permits for skilled workers should be increased from 65,000 to as many as 180,000 per year.

The European Union introduced a new Blue Card visa to entice skilled workers from outside the EU. India reported they needed a staggering 800 new universities, to avoid a 1.6 million shortfall of engineers this decade.

Yet Charette quotes many other reports stating there are more STEM workers than jobs. Further, wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have stagnated since 2000.

STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from recent graduates to midand late-career PhDs, still struggle to find employment as many companies continue to lay off thousands of STUM workers.

Is it a Matter of Supply and Demand?

For decades the U.S. has graduated more STEM students than there were jobs. So is there really a STEM labor shortage? The debate began more than 50 years ago. Charette says there might be a STEM crisis but not the one that frightened us. "The real STEM crisis is one of literacy: the fact that today's students are not receiving a solid grounding in science, math, and engineering," he says.

Accurate answers affect reality. The inconsistencies are terrifying. Where to turn?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce track the number of STEM jobs, but they use different criteria.

Commerce reports that 7.6 million individuals worked in STEM jobs in 2010, or about 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce.

That number includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science, mathematics, engineering, and physical sciences.

Contrast that with the NSF figure of 12.4 million science and engineering jobs. It includes areas that Commerce excludes, such as health-care workers (4.3 million) and psychologists and social scientists (518 000). …

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