Currently, there is a huge emphasis in the United States on getting college students to major in what has come to be known by the acronym STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Unfortunately, this emphasis may be entirely the wrong direction for many students, as it is not clear that in the current economic environment these majors will be any more useful for graduates to find gainful employment than a major in any other field.
Is STEM Education a Scam?
Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics: we're told our economy needs more of these majors. But will students with those majors actually get a job?
This article is my personal opinion and should not be construed as career or education advice. Seek the opinion of a qualified educational or career counselor to evaluate your personal situation.
Has someone attempted to convince you or someone you know that STEM majors are going to be needed in the near future?
Prospects for Employment in Science
While many people say there is a great need for more scientists (and make no mistake, the need is there), employment opportunities in science are rapidly decreasing. The United States government formerly supported scientists in ever-increasing numbers with each generation; however, with the current emphasis on private industry, and cutting the government budget, including science research, the likelihood of finding work in ground-breaking research is diminishing. Most companies invest in science only with the purpose of making a profit. While that may mean work in pharmaceuticals or bio-engineering, and a few jobs in physics, it is unlikely that large numbers of scientists will be able to find work in the near future. Universities and foundations, which were formerly large employers of scientists, are responding to economic stresses by cutting funding to research. The prospects are currently so dim that foreign researchers are no longer applying to come to the United States, but are choosing to accept work in other countries (especially those in Western Europe) instead.
If you want a career in science, you may be better off forming your own company.
Prospects for Employment in Technology
With the availability of connections to the internet increasing globally each day, technology majors will have to compete with countries whose prevailing wages would not prove to be a living wage in the United States. Major corporations are choosing to hire computer programmers and other technology professionals in India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other developing countries, rather than hire workers who live in the United States. Where once a company might have hired an entire division in the Unites States, now it is more likely that the company will hire one or two supervising programmers locally to manage a team primarily located in another country.
Prospects for Employment in Engineering
Engineering majors will face the same problems as technology majors. With the proliferation of excellent higher education in developing countries, along with the ability to study engineering and science courses over the internet, it is profoundly cheaper for companies to hire one or two engineers to supervise a team of engineers in another country than to hire engineers in the United States.
The Voyager Spacecraft: Humanity's Farthest Journey, by NASA
Prospects for Employment in Mathematics
In addition to all the problems mentioned with technology and engineering majors, mathematics majors face another hurdle: the ever-increasing power of technology makes computation trivial, and so mathematics is needed for only a few tasks. Of course, checking the accuracy of computer-generated computations is one field, but most of the work that will be needed in the future will lie in the range of pure mathematics. Since university budgets are tight, and most companies will not invest in pure research, the outlook for mathematics majors appears grim.
What We Learned in Latin Class
One of the first things you learn in Latin class is the phrase, "Cui bono?" This translates to "Who benefits?" There are millions of dollars being poured now into lobbying efforts to make the case for STEM education, and $50 million into an effort to introduce legislation to dramatically increase the number of STEM visas. When we look at who is putting the money into lobbying, we see that it is primarily coming from large corporations in software, computers, and information technology.
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Is the United States falling behind in the global race for scientific and engineering talent? Are U.S. employers facing shortages of the skilled workers that they need to compet...
This book clearly details five boom-bust cycles in the past sixty years of supposed shortages of scientists and engineers, lasting from ten to fifteen years each. Each cycle follows a predictable pattern, and the current cycle is so far following the same pattern. The bust part of the cycle leads to mass layoffs and falling wages, until students see that there is no value in STEM majors, and then a "shortage" and another boom cycle begins.
Where is the Future Headed?
This is by no means to say that there is not value in STEM; simply that STEM may not be the royal road to a secure career. Rather, I would encourage people to look at the problems with STEM majors: globalization, replacing expensive workers with cheaper workers, the equalization of educational opportunity, and the increasing power of automation and computers. In a recent publication by the United States Department of Labor, only one STEM major made the list of fastest-growing occupations: biomedical engineers. In addition, in a recent survey, nearly one-fifth of scientists polled said they were considering emigration to another country in order to continue their careers (link opens PDF file).
So what is left? Promising careers are those that are local in nature, where one cannot be replaced by a cheaper worker overseas; careers requiring individual creativity, where one's work is unique; and careers that cannot be taken over by a computer. Where does one find such careers? The answers may surprise you!
Careers of the Future
Here are some careers that appear protected from the problems of the STEM majors
A career in the arts requires individual creativity, and often localization. Artists cannot be replaced by some other, cheaper artist. Videographers must be local.
While there are factories that turn out furniture, musical instruments, and other items, there will always be a local need for repair and maintenance of these items.
There's no foreseeable substitute for plumbers, electricians, automobile mechanics, and similar trades. No-one in India is going to come to your house to repair your wiring or snake your drain.
Musicians, Dancers, and Actors
As with the arts, one is not replaceable by another, and people will always appreciate live performances. In addition, the performing arts require dozens of other professions as support professions: publishing, editing, and manufacturing among them.
Where a STEM education may be useful is in a career as an inventor, whether it is a new type of paint, or a new formula to describe behavior, or some other application. The world will always respond to new inventions!
As education becomes more standardized, people who search for creativity will still need the works of novelists, playwrights, scriptwriters, and poets. Language will still continue to be used for communication, and the clearer and more polished the language, the better.
Whether one designs clothing, cars, interiors, furniture, or anything else, no computer has the imagination to create an original design, and, in many cases, designers must be local.
There will always be a need for good teachers, whether in public school, university, private school, independent instructors, or even in private companies. While Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may replace some courses, people are always willing to pay for private or advanced instruction or mentoring services.
Massage therapists, hairstylists, house cleaners, interior decorators, alterations (at least until the advance of 3-d printing), nurses, and other services that must be performed locally will continue to be needed, at least until robots get much better than they are.
No matter how clever computers become at aggregating data, it takes the personal touch of interpretation to understand what data tells us. While scientific research may be in decline, other kinds of research may become more in demand. Fact-checkers will also always be in demand.
On-site reporters will always be needed. Of course, you may not be able to choose where you live; large urban areas will have more news than rural communities, unless you have exceptional investigative reporting skills.