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Recently, I have come across this infographic floating around the web that I believe deserves more attention. You can see the full version here. It illustrates the labor pool shortage we are experiencing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related fields. Some key takeaways:

  • 75% of students talented in math and science decide not to pursue STEM in college.
  • Almost 40% of college students who planned to major in STEM switch to non-STEM, or fail entirely.
  • Only 19% of college degrees awarded are STEM-related.
  • STEM demand is growing. By 2018, 2.8 million STEM jobs will open.
  • STEM interest in college is faltering. In some specialties it is at an all-time low.

I recall not too long ago that despite unemployment being at 8-9% with millions unemployed, tens of thousands of STEM-jobs were going unfilled (some of which were at the software company I work for), simply because there were not enough qualified candidates. I was just talking to a colleague at Fannie Mae a few weeks ago and discovered that of the 800 openings they are struggling to fill, 500 of them are in technology. This rift is a combination of decrease in STEM supply and increase in demand.

The increase in demand is not surprising. Some driving forces that come to mind are:

  • Technology breeds more technology - Innovations lead to more innovations to build and old creations to maintain. The Internet for example led to an explosion of web-based applications. Breakthroughs in human genome sequencing opened up a new world of possibilities.
  • Global rising middle-class - There is an unprecedented amount of middle-class growth around the globe never before seen in human history. This typically means urbanization which means all sorts of demand in construction, power, communications, financial, entertainment and transportation technologies.
  • Increasingly older population - It's no secret that the world is getting older and people are living longer. This means a relatively small work force must support a relatively larger population. This phenomenon is more pronounced with the aging baby boomer population. The only way this can work is if the workforce is more productive, and much of productivity is/will be driven by innovation and automation from STEM R&D.

The decrease in supply is more baffling to me. Students are often quoted as saying STEM is "hard" and that is why they shy away from pursuing it. STEM has always been hard however. If anything, STEM is arguably easier to learn today with many advancements in education technology. Some driving forces that I have heard or come to mind are:

  • Pop culture - I think pop culture must shoulder at least some of the responsibility. In the past decade or two, I recall seeing many celebrations of stupidity in pop media: Beavis and Butthead, MTV, Southpark, and Jackass to name just a few. This is certainly not conducive to promoting brain-powered activities like STEM.
  • Attention deficit rhythm - The rhythm of life today seems spawned by and encouraging of attention deficit. People are bombarded by pieces of information from all direction vying for their mind share causing people to spread their time and think a little bit about many things. Interruptions and distractions from email, your smartphone, social media and other new sources abound. This is not conducive to STEM. Hard things usually require deep, undivided attention and focus.
  • Natural cycle - Like most natural phenomenon, things ebb and flow. Maybe this is just another swing in the pendulum and we will see a big uptick in STEM interest soon. Maybe.
  • Cushy lifestyles - Too many kids sit at home on the couch playing videogames, watching TV, or playing on their smartphone these days. This lifestyle is too cushy and not conducive to fostering a posture toward tackling tough endeavors like STEM.
  • Weak parenting - For whatever reason, parents now are too focused on nurturing and over-inflating their kids' self esteem without having them do the hard stuff to earn that sense of self worth first. This again is not conducive to tackling hard (yet rewarding) endeavors like STEM.
  • Conspiracy theory - Yes, I have heard this before. Ever since we got to the moon, there has been a deliberate and systematic initiative by the powers to be to dumb down the population for easier control and governance.

Whatever the reasons are, this shortage is not news to politicians, policy makers, nor corporations (nor news to TechHui). This shortage affects large macro issues like America being competitive in the global arena to mundane daily issues like how easy it is to get healthcare (In Hawaii for example, it is not uncommon to have to wait 6-8 months just to get a regular doctor's appointment as a new patient). The STEM shortage conversation doesn't seem to have progressed far enough beyond government and business however, so here is some basic advice:

  • If you are a parent, train your kids to be able to tackle the hard stuff. Yes, "pursue your passions" is good but within the parameters of what the world needs more of.
  • If you are a student inclined to STEM, don't be a part of the 75%. Pursue it. It's hard, but worth it. Ditto to students who already chose STEM. Just follow through.
  • If you are a student not inclined to STEM at all, encourage your STEM peers' STEM pursuits. This has the added bonus of making your non-STEM career more valuable. :)
  • If you are already a STEM professional, constantly improve yourself and encourage your craft.
  • If you shape pop culture, make Star Trek cool again!

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Comment by Joseph Lui on March 27, 2013 at 1:08pm

Thanks Brian for your thoughtful responses and sharing your experiences. Regarding "STEM being tough and that is the problem"--au contraire! I think it being tough is being used too often as an excuse not to pursue a career in it. As you alluded to, what I'm saying is on top of toughening it out, we as a culture need to promote the notion that STEM is interesting, fun, and social.

Comment by Brian on March 27, 2013 at 8:08am
Oh and on the hiring side. Companies need to get HR people that understand tech better. I wonder how many of those 500 job filings went unfilled because the relevant HR body didn't find the right acronym in a resume pull.

Inevitably once a month or so I get some clueless recruiter pinging me about a DBA job or something just because I have a resume floating out there that mentions SQL. Because you know, "It's computers and stuff right? That's what you do."

I'm sure this is a problem in other fields, but I do think tech is worse.

Anyway I agree with many of your points, but I find it curious that you seem to have drank the koolaid that STEM is a tough endeavour and that's the problem. Lots of things are tough and kids excel at them. Sports for example. I played basketball in HS and training is repetitive and lots of work. I did debate too and that involved a lot of work. I didn't have to do either of these things. I did them because they were interesting and fun and were team activities.
Comment by Brian on March 27, 2013 at 7:55am
FWIW, I work in STEM but did not graduate with a degree in it, though I originally started off in EE. I know several with this experience. One does not even have a degree of any kind.

Based on my experience, which may or may not be representative, there are a lot of cultural flaws in STEM educational culture. The courses I enjoyed were great, but many were taught in a style where if you didn't understand something, well too bad I guess you're not smart enough to be here.

The result is what matches the workforce pretty well. A lot of trained but frankly mediocre engineers who lack creative abilities since it's been discouraged. Maybe it's changed in the past 10 years and I know it's not like this everywhere, but the assembly line approach I've witnessed heavily discourages many who otherwise would do well. A culture dominated by disapproval for liberal arts and studies that are seen as irrelevant rather than evaluated by how they can come together. STEM needs to be interdisciplinary if it is to succeed. Music and EE? Art and math? Sure why not. Core skills are important but look at how we actually use technology. Algorithms and structures are not for their own sake. I'm all for pure research, but I also see how math culture influences STEM education too heavily. I love math and still like many aspects of discrete math to this day while my disinterest for calculus is just as strong. Understanding the fundamentals is key, but there's a lot more to it than that. The philosophy, art, literature and history classes I took were more engaging than the typical structures and algorithms course. The funny part is I really like data structures but the teaching methods frankly sucked.

I think a big root cause is the whole tenure system. Many of these professors have no interest in teaching and need to go. Get people in there who want to educate, and are not just showing up for the lectures their dept head requires of them.

- bri

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