Monday, November 11, 2013

Three dumb quotes from the Chronicle's article on the "STEM crisis"

There's yet another article discussing whether there is or is not a "STEM crisis." I don't have time to get into the details of the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Michael Anft, other than to say that the usual skeptics (Matloff, Hira, Teitelbaum) are in there, as well as the STEM boosters (Carnevale, Atkinson.) It's the STEM boosters that I want to point out for ridicule (emphasis mine):
STEM majors, no matter where they work, in STEM fields or out, do better than other types of majors and tend to move into management pretty quickly," says Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which has published papers that point to a shortage of STEM grads. "Having experience in technical matters helps them land good non-STEM jobs. They might work in places like marketing or medical-device sales, where their technical backgrounds helped them get in." 
So, even if there were no STEM worker shortage, it still might be a good idea to graduate more science and tech majors? 
"That's about it," says Mr. Carnevale. "You have to produce STEM workers like crazy just to have enough of them in the work force. Unemployment rates for grads in those fields are lower than the overall national average for college graduates"—3.4 percent for computer and math grads, compared with an aggregate figure of 4 percent for all college grads, according to the Department of Commerce—so "STEM is still a place you go where you have a pretty good shot. But we don't want to overdo it. You don't want to pump a bunch of people out there who, in the end, have nothing to do."
Because after spending 2 years in the lab, there's nothing a B.S. chemist or a biologist wants to do more than marketing or medical-device sales.

From IT trade association head Robert Atkinson, no expressed concern about downward wage pressure in IT/computer science (emphasis mine):
"There's no question that to keep our innovative edge, we need more people coming into technology fields," says Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, an advocacy group that receives the bulk of its funding from tech companies. It urges the federal government to widen the so-called STEM pipeline from school to work. 
The wage issue shouldn't be used to discredit the idea of a worker shortage, Mr. Atkinson believes: "Companies can go overseas for workers, so wage growth in the U.S. is more limited." There will be work in IT for people with the right set of skills, he says, adding that lower wages probably won't keep them from accepting jobs.
[stunned silence]
He also makes less modest proposals—ones that echo the United States' longtime love affair with machines and material progress. That includes a desire to funnel college students into what he calls "more useful" majors. 
"We should be making some value judgments on what kind of people we'll need for the nation to move forward," Mr. Atkinson says. "The distribution of degrees right now is entirely up to students. Shouldn't we be steering them into degree types that are of more value to society, such as computer science or engineering? The American tradition is one of hard-core pragmatism. We're at risk of losing that, and we're in trouble now in regards to competitiveness."
You know, I don't typically say things like this, but if Atkinson actually said this, he's* what he said was really stupid. Jaw-droppingly stupid. I'd really like to believe in science and engineering as careers, but why would we be trying to force them into these careers? What more enticements can we offer them other than -- I dunno -- higher wages and more job security?

*UPDATE: 11/11/2013, 6:31 Eastern: While it may be a distinction without a difference, it was wrong of me and overly personal to refer to Mr. Atkinson as "stupid", as opposed to his statement. My apologies to Mr. Atkinson. Once again, though, I wildly disagree with his statement and its logic.  

17 comments:

  1. I think I can see why Atkinson is saying what he is saying; he thinks America's innovation edge (compared to China and India) will save us--we will have unemployment, but he probably thinks it will be lower than anywhere else, and I think he could be right. Our innovation will protect us from catastrophe's in the future, which europe may not be spared of at this point.

    But he wants this innovative edge despite the high social cost to Tech people--the misery and humiliation of having a low paying job. This probably means nothing to him, because hes probably well paid and surrounded by like minded (and looking) peers, instead of chinese and indian immigrants.

    Just my opinion.

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    1. In other words, he's an asshole. Got it.

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    2. Thanks for the laugh

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  2. "Because after spending 2 years in the lab, there's nothing a B.S. chemist or a biologist wants to do more than marketing or medical-device sales"

    True, but it's also better than starving.

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    1. That's debatable.

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    2. After 2 years in the lab a true chemist wants to remain in the lab. He doesn't want to became a salesman or to work in the marketing.

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    3. I think your definition of a true chemist is rather narrow. For most people and places after working a couple years there are a convergence of factors that can influence career path. If the science is not going well there can be a level of frustration that hits to make one question if wish to spend 15-20 years doing it (often similar happen in Grad school with certain projects. Beyond that there is pigeon-holing as will start to make it harder to transition to another area, even if still in the lab role. Somewhat related about that time for most there is also stronger realization that may have limited real advancement opportunity unless do shift to another position (Scientific Ladders are typically a HR sponsored fantasy). At times it could be the prime time to strategically seek a lateral move to get out from under a poor supervisor or even colleagues that are "not compatible with" and not raise red flags regarding such issues (which likely have bad repercussions on you even if can prove if others are the problem). Frankly there could be some envy and grass is greener thinking when one get exposure to and understands the realities of pay and perk differentials for certain people, particularly sales and marketing, if one can expand personality to match such roles.

      On the broader topic what probably do STEM people have in common that make them more valuable than many other majors? I would suggest its the "Math" ability as seems many people in US, even if a far number of Business types, have watered down grasp of math concepts that STEM people have to overcome. Its probably the widespread underlying lack of math skills that make STEM more useful generally than just to fill available STEM jobs. We can argue about whether this is from poor math education out there or general acceptance that can succeed without really knowing math due to calculators and computers however to me it may be at the core of why certain think we need to promote STEM (to counterbalance the math deficiency overall)

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    4. Anon@3:32,

      I've got to cry "malarkey" on your second paragraph. "STEM" is a construct not grounded in reality. What do microbiologists, IT, and civil engineers have in common? Not much...not even math. You're looking for a pattern where there is none.

      Where's the growth predicted in the dissimilar grouping known as "STEM?" It's in the "T"...in IT and computer science, but not the high-end stuff that requires math. Demand for the "M" is not predicted to grow...nor is "S."

      Having said all that, your first paragraph, I must say, is dead on.

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    5. In my defense I will cite the comment in subsequent related post by Bryan Balazs (November 15, 2013 at 9:23 AM) who states "An education in chemistry (or biology, or physics, or STEM, or science in general, take your pick) teaches you skills that many employers value: 1) the ability to define a problem, 2) the ability to pose methods to solve this problem, 3) logical thinking, ... My argument is not based on doing specific types of math in the broad areas, which in practice may not have extensive overlap in different STEM jobs, as more the principle and concepts inherent in mathematics training that underlies STEM fields which I think Bryan has summarized well. It probably is admittedly an overly simplistic view however when I compare such a approach to seemingly dominate cultural reinforcement for immediate, bottom-line satisfaction and answers without much understanding or foundations having people (STEM types) who can fill the gaps is important

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  3. Let's train more STEM workers because they make great salespeople and managers is a very strange argument, indeed. Why not train more business grads instead?

    Some of the quotes you mention are mind-boggling indeed. If I understand correctly, we should force people to study science and they should be happy to get paid very little to do it. Okay then.

    One thing that comforts me is that these things tend to be self-correcting over time. If people can't find jobs in their field, eventually people will stop studying that field and find something more practical. It actually pains me to think that a STEM field is not necessarily a practical field of study anymore.

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  4. Re: Atkinson's more useful majors.
    Because heaven forbid we have people in our society who understand our history, and that laws, political maps and ideologies were not always as they were; or the ability to communicate effectively, whether in English or another language; or cultural studies - lest we actually empathize with and understand *those* people over there.

    Yes, the sciences (or rather, engineering and technology) are important, but they're not the only thing a society needs to function. And I say this as a STEM recent grad.

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    1. This reminds me of the backlash a sociology professor from UCSD absorbed several years ago. During the California budget crisis he suggested that the state shutter the "low tier" UC schools to save the state money. Predictably, he listed SD as one of the top performers. Also predictably, he received a very deserved retort that maybe the UC's should stop funding majors that weren't practical, including sociology.

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    2. This is probably the best response to that, though.

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  5. As a fellow head of a non-profit, I find your assertion that Mr. Atkinson is "jaw-droppingly stupid" unfair, hurtful, and insulting. In fact, it would not be a stretch to cal it kimmelesque! That you are unable to recognize long-term goals and agendas of a particular group of individuals only means that you are naive and nearsighted.

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  6. So the country needs a surplus of STEM workers to depress compensation and provide over trained young people for spillover into jobs requiring no such training? Yeah every smart young person I know will gladly sign up for that life plan. There seems to be several missing links here. Potential STEM students actually have to have the smarts and an aptitude for this stuff or in two nanoseconds they will washed out. Not only that, they have to be willing to work hard and should really like what they are doing otherwise they are gone. It is always funny to hear those stories of some bright child forced to become a doctor by their parents only to drop out of school to follow their true love - acting! Also today’s young people understand that the relationship between employee-employer is one of: you will be screwed no matter what you do in your job or what skill you have. Although they might need a job now, they know that they will be shafted sooner than later by their employer. It is best to avoid being a wage slave for any employer or at least show zero loyalty if you must work for someone.

    Then there is that little matter of lifestyle everyone wants and the money it requires to have. Best I can tell Society really only rewards movie stars, athletes, executives, bankers and business builders/owners none of which require STEM degrees. This guy is not suggesting STEM training is a path to becoming a movie star or banker just getting a starting job in sales. Even more apparent to today’s young is that getting 15 minutes acting stupid on TV will make you richer than working a lifetime as a scientist. Those morons “The Situation” and Snooki are worth $6 million and $4 million respectively for just getting drunk and having sex on TV. All you chemists out there raise your hands if you had made that kind of money before you turned 30.

    Fortunately this sort of STEM stupidity typically can only be sustained for about seven years. When newly trained STEM workers understand that they have just been shafted, they make a lot of noise and the word goes out in the land to stay away from STEM degrees. This was what happened in the 1970s when there was a large contraction in STEM hiring. The annual number of newly minted Ph.D. chemists who graduated 1971was 2284 when chemistry employment collapsed. As a result of PhD chemists not finding jobs after graduation, the annual number of new PhD chemists dropped to 1518 by 1979.

    Young people are not stupid, and they will figure out fairly fast that when some dopy old person says the word STEM, it really means companies are in need of cheap labor with skills.

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  7. 3.4% unemployment rate is seen by these people as a problem that needs fixing

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  8. @UnstableIsotope - I need to respectfully disagree with your statement "Let's train more STEM workers because they make great salespeople and managers is a very strange argument, indeed. Why not train more business grads instead?". Technical sales and marketing roles are actually better served by people who trained in that technical field rather than people with marketing or MBA degrees - and there is no degree in sales. IMO technical sales and marketing are STEM careers.

    I don't think there are enough STEM careers for all of those who take STEM education. But I think we do everyone in this field a disservice by assuming (as you, and other of the commentators here) that the only STEM careers are those actively engaged in doing research. Someone doing technical sales or marketing is IMO someone who is pursuing a alternate STEM career rather than someone who has found a career outside of STEM.

    I actually see your opinion here (as seems to be shared by other anon commentators) as the same type of prejudice that led us to once think that non academic careers (ie industrial) were somehow what people did if they couldn't get a real STEM position.

    I appreciate that I may be a lone voice in disagreement here, but I've sat on both sides of this proverbial fence - and to be honest when I was on the research side I would probably have thought in a similar way to you. But now I think there are many STEM (ok, S) careers that don't involve actual research - scientific publishing, scientific journalism, scientific advocacy and, yes, scientific sales and scientific marketing.

    For a single reference point - in my team, which is a scientific marketing team, I pretty much exclusively recruit scientists. I don't have anyone with a marketing degree. People may pick up an MBA or parts of one along the way. But all have a scientific degree. and many have an an advanced degree and significant bench/lab experience. This isn't an example of soft skills being re-used, as would be the case for most careers in e.g. retail management. This is a job requirement.

    I don't want to detract from the main thrust of the blog here - which I do agree with. But I must disagree with your statement specifically and the general assumption that non traditional careers are somehow non STEM.

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