Wednesday, June 11, 2014

President Obama: "I'm putting a big emphasis on STEM in part because we have a shortage"

From yesterday's Tumblr chat with President Obama*, an interesting section where he talked about "Why STEM?" (emphases mine) (ht @belehaa):
[E-mailed in question]: How can we promote growth in the STEM fields without putting humanities on the back burner? 
The President: Well, first of all, I want to say, I was a humanities major. So... I majored in political science, I majored in English. I was pretty good in math. I actually loved math and science until I got into high school and I misspent those years. And the thing about humanities was, you could talk your way through classes which you couldn't do in math and science, right? So a great liberal arts / humanities education is still critically important because in today's global economy, one of the most important skills you have is the ability to work with people and communicate clearly and effectively. 
Having said that, what is also true is that technology is going to continue to drive innovation and just to be a good citizen, you need some background in STEM. And we are not producing enough engineers, enough computer scientists, enough math teachers and science teachers, and enough researchers. And so I'm putting a big emphasis on STEM in part because we have a shortage, not because I'm privileging one over the other but because we don't have as many people going into the STEM fields.  
And it starts early. Part of what we're trying to do is work with public schools to take away some of the intimidation factor of math and science. Part of what we're trying to do is to make sure we're reaching to demographics that are very underrepresented. And, yes, I mean you, women. Girls are still more likely to be discouraged in pursuing math, science, technology degrees. You see that imbalance in Silicon Valley, you see that imbalance in a lot of high-tech firms. 
We're trying to lift up curriculums that are interesting for kids, work with schools in terms of best practices. One of the things that we're also discovering is that young people who have an interest in math and science, often times they're steered into finance because that's been perceived as the more lucrative option. And we're trying to work with universities and departments of engineering, for example, to help mentor young people to understand that if you look at the top 100 companies in the country, you've got a lot more engineers running companies than folks who have a finance background. 
So there are great opportunities. So that's one of the things that every young person should be thinking about: A) what's their passion - what do they care about? But they should also be taking a look at, where's there a demand? And frankly, if you've got a science or engineering background, the likelihood of you being unemployed is very low. And it doesn't preclude you from you know, writing haiku at some point and figuring out some creative outlet. But having that discipline and skill set is still going to be invaluable. 
This is a frustrating thing to hear from the President. I have my differences with him and his Administration's policies (perhaps not a surprise), but I think that he's an intelligent, honorable man who genuinely tries to do what he thinks is best for the country. Let's recap what he has revealed he thinks:
  1. The country is "not producing enough engineers, enough computer scientists, enough math teachers and science teachers and enough researchers." 
  2. The country has a shortage of STEM workers. 
  3. This shortage has to do with students being discouraged from thinking about STEM as a career path, especially women.
  4. This shortage is exacerbated by STEM students going into finance. 
  5. If you've got a science or engineering background, the likelihood of you being unemployed is very low. 
Suffice it to say that my understanding of the bulk of the actual social science we have available is that there is little evidence of a shortage of engineers or computer scientists. I do not know enough about the number of science and math teachers in this country, so I can't speak to that.

But President Obama is apparently aware of the travails of lawyers, considering his statement in the next part of the conversation: the way, we have enough lawyers. It's a fine profession. I can say that because I'm a lawyer. 
We all have our own perspectives, I guess. He's probably talked to a lot of law school grads who've had trouble finding work than unemployed scientists.

*Relevant section starts at 14:30, goes to 18:00. 


  1. This is disappointing to hear from the President. His knowledge of the reality of STEM seems to me to reflect poor advice and a superficial knowledge of the reality of STEM careers.

    A personal anecdote. A female friend of ours who has a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's degree in biochemistry has had a difficult time finding employment in either field. Engineering recruiters aren't sure what to do with her biochemistry master's degree, and biochemistry recruiters don't know what to make of her engineering degree. Added to that, she recently married an aviation engineer. Finding suitable employment that keeps her in reasonably close proximity to her new husband (in the Mid-West U.S.) turns out to be even more of a challenge than finding suitable employment when she was single.

  2. "... often times they're steered into finance ..."

    In the article at

    The Curious Passions of Mr. Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson On Space, Climate, and Why Curiosity Wins Every Time

    Neil deGrasse Tyson does not use the word "steer":

    "As a capitalist democracy, if we don’t want to die poor, you’re not going to solve that by creating programs to get someone interested in science. That’s not how its works. Someone says, “Okay, let’s make better science teachers and they’ll get all the kids excited!” So now they become scientists—now what? Is the government doing anything with them? No! No! No! So they become investment bankers! That’s what happens when you have smart people who don’t have any interesting science to do when they get out of school. They take on other fields."

  3. The Iron ChemistJune 12, 2014 at 7:21 AM

    From what I've seen and heard about science and mathematics education, the core problem is the retention, not the training, of teachers. You want to retain more teachers? Make the jobs more attractive, perhaps by doing something radical like paying them at a level that's in line with their (government and media-alleged) worth.

    The pipeline analogy drives me crazy, in large part because it's a fairly accurate view of how these folks really view scientists. Water goes through pipelines and it is viewed as a cheap disposable resource. Everybody flushes gallons of water down the toilet, for instance, without a second thought. Is this really supposed to appeal to the smartest and most talented students?

    1. We say we value police and fire people too, but when it comes time to pay them...we don't really value them so much. That "stated preferences versus revealed preferences" thing rears its ugly head again. If I were cynical, I'd say that the claimed valuation is a (not very good) attempt to increase perceived social status (ignoring that it doesn't matter much anymore) so that we don't have to pay them, in which case, the (mostly Republican) idea of demonizing government workers and working to lower their pay might be doubly counterproductive - no social status and no pay = who's going to work here again? (Maybe that's the point.)

      Most people have finite amounts of money that have been shrinking or whose costs have been increasing faster than pay. The people who have been doing well don't want to spend their money on services they don't need, and the people who could use the services don't have the money to pay for them. Either the services and their pretense of justice go away or you have to take (through) taxes more money from people who have it. No one likes those options, and we don't have any concurrence on which one we want, and no desire to compromise (or room - if one set of people things something should exist and one doesn't, how do you compromise?).

      I think that this is where specialization returns bitter fruit. People mainly worry about what needs to be to keep their jobs in place, and not about anyone else's. They also assume that there is enough flexibility in skills and the job market that when someone's field becomes unuseful, they can use their education to do something else (so that they don't have to worry about them); however, that hasn't been the case. The closing of a field means lots of people become expendable, and the things they know are wasted, and the skills they acquired expensively aren't used for anything useful. Training costs have shifted to individuals, and the costs of choosing training that is useful have as well; the ability to retrain is thus severely inhibited. If the number of people expended is small, maybe that's a tolerable cost, but as seems clear (the economy turning over to low-wage jobs en masse but counting on high-cost products) it's not a small number.

    2. If you think police and fire people have it rough, you haven't been paying attention. For instance in LA, you can retire and go back to work simultaneously, with a surprisingly big payout:

      School teachers don't have it that good but they do have a few perks. The trouble with many pubic worker benefits is that they have unions pushing hard for them and no competition for services, so the "Republican idea of demonizing government workers" is about the only thing keeping costs contained at all.

  4. Its bad enough when there isn't a good job available when you get your MS and PhD STEM degree. Its a hell of lot worse when the cultural meme of "we need more STEM workers!"; "there are great jobs--great pay to support a family" keep persisting despite all of the anecdotal evidence around. I am 50, have a poor paying STEM job, but thanks to the persistent meme, my family thinks there most be something wrong with me--Im some kind of loser. My parents who got jobs in the 60's, when they didnt have to worry about hordes of well-trained, intelligent immigrants competing for your job, cannot, and will never understand. Its very frustrating.

  5. I hear a lot of grumbling so far among these comments. I, too am now an unemployed chemist with a doctorate. Is there anyone here who would be interested in figuring out how to send a petition to the President about his comments and beliefs? In particular (a) as chemists, as opposed to "STEM" workers and (b) and as born US citizens (lots of other western countries protect the job market for their citizens).

    1. You could try a petition on petitions.
      I would sign it

    2. Interesting. A glance through indicates that the greatest number of citizens who supported a petition as of today was ~ 212,000. How many could we raise?

  6. I won't argue with anything that has been said a long-term reader of this blog and a soon-to-be PhD in chemistry, I am painfully aware of the state of the job market. But to address the statement about science teachers, I will mention that my wife (a high school chemistry teacher) received five good job offers when she interviewed for teaching positions near my grad school and her starting salary was enough for us to live comfortably on, even without my stipend. I will not argue that high school teaching is easy, nor that the pay is wonderful (in some states it isn't actually enough to live on) but from watching my wife's school district and the surrounding schools, I do believe that chemistry teachers (and physics, to a lesser degree) are in demand. Take this anecdotal evidence for what it's worth.

    1. FWIW, I believe that there is constant-yet-not-large-but-still-real demand for high school chemistry teachers, in that there's probably reasonably high turnover because of retention problems.

      BUT, so far as I understand, there hasn't been publication/publicizing of relevant facts, other than the typical corporate baloney about how underqualified STEM teachers are.

    2. Wasn't there a comment elsewhere on this blog about having to start early in one's career as a HS teacher in order to eventually accrue a decent salary? That caveat limits the relevance of being a HS chemistry teacher to a fraction of the currently unemployed PhD chemists. And of course, you don't need a doctorate to teach teenagers.

    3. From Chad Brick on the "Ph.D. chemist encourages collegues to become high school teachers" thread: "The pay is the real killer for me. If you don't start on the K12 track as a 22-year-old, you will never reach the high salaries and decent pension that those teachers receive when they are in their fifties and beyond. Pensions by design are heavily backloaded, and this is compounded by the ladder pay scale system which gives no credit for years of relevant non-teaching experience. In most districts, a PhD with 20 years of experience in the private sector who just started teaching would get paid about as much as a 25 year old who became a teacher straight out of college."

    4. High school teaching is repetitive by nature. Every year a high school teacher teaches the same basic material: periodic table, balancing ionic reactions etc. I think it takes a special temperament to not become dead bored doing this. Yes at some of the gifted programs you might have opportunities to teach more, but unless you live in a town where "all the children are above average," the need is for the low level basics for average kids. For PhDs the contrast between what you know and what subject matter you need to know to teach high school decently is stark. I would rather high school teachers had bachelors degrees in their subject but a higher degree of common sense, conscientiousness, and organization than them having more advanced knowledge of subject matter.

  7. To echo what others have said, teaching is a much different profession than engineering, or research, or computer science, and obviously shortages/surpluses vary amongst those. But when the execs have the ear of the president and others in control, well, it brings to mind the old Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

  8. not my president

    1. If you live in the US he is, that's how representative democracies work.

  9. Actually, if you, President Obama*, are anything like STEM-industry CEOs, you're not looking to fix supposed shortages for STEM jobs, you're actually just looking to skim off the top of a surplus: hiring only the very best and brightest with the most relevant, most impressive work experience, and damning the rest of us to fight tooth and nail for a job - any job.

    The problem still isn't about shortages in the STEM field, it's about - and has always been about - employers setting completely unreasonable expectations for hiring in entry-level positions, the refusal to put resources into satisfactorily training entry-level workers, and the catch-22 of not being able to get experience without already having prior experience.

    *I know Obama isn't actually reading this

  10. Great post! Been reading a lot about education problems in America. Thanks for the info here!


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20