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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Commentary / STEM Sense and Nonsense

Let's stop hyperventilating about STEM worker shortages and focus our efforts on improving overall STEM literacy.

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Historians still argue over the exact date, but the tipping point may have happened late Monday afternoon on October 18, 2023. On that day, America lost the STEM War.
After years of warnings from business leaders and politicians about the "intellectual disarmament" (Gates, 2011) of the nation caused by the lack of "reverence for science and math and technology and learning" (White House, 2009), the United States finally fell hopelessly behind other nations in the "rapid and persistent worldwide advance of education, knowledge, innovation, investment, and industrial infrastructure" (Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, & National Academy of Engineering, 2010, p. x). As a result, the nation quickly saw its "privileged position" in the world erode (Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, & National Academy of Engineering, 2005, p. 13) and faced the end of its "high quality of life" (p. 1).
Sound farfetched?
Not if you believe the almost daily dose of mass media stories, journal articles, and industry white papers alleging that the United States faces a STEM crisis. But the tale of seemingly insurmountable STEM woes is not new; it has been regularly repeated over the past 75 years. The myth of a science and engineering workforce crisis not only risks steering students in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, but also undermines legitimate efforts to create a STEM-literate society.

History of the "Crisis"

The current installment of the STEM crisis narrative originated in the early 2000s with a slew of reports warning of an imminent shortfall of skilled workers. The National Association of Manufacturers (2001), for instance, asserted that unless U.S. education changed significantly, the country was facing a shortage of 5.3 million skilled workers by 2010 and 14 million skilled workers by 2015.
In 2005, a highly influential, 592-page report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm was published by the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering. Written by a committee of prominent businesspeople, academics, and scientists, the report painted a grim picture of the rapid erosion of the United States' lead in science and technology. The authors argued that compared with students in other countries, U.S. students were uninterested in STEM careers and poorly prepared to pursue them even if they desired to do so. China was already graduating three times as many engineers as the United States, with the gap growing wider each year.
The Gathering Storm's findings helped convince President George W. Bush to propose, and Congress in 2007 to approve, the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act, which aimed to significantly increase funding for federal research and development as well as STEM education (Markoff, 2006).
When Barack Obama took office, he too believed that the country suffered from a STEM crisis. President Obama quickly began a series of high-profile public-private initiatives to address the problem of inadequate teaching in STEM. He issued a national challenge to prepare 100,000 effective STEM teachers, proposed putting $1 billion into the federal budget to create a STEM Master Teacher Corps, and requested $80 million for a competition by the Department of Education to improve STEM teacher preparation programs (White House, n.d.).
Some experts identified the root of the STEM crisis as the lack of student interest and retention—the so-called "leaky STEM student pipeline." One popular graphic, attributed to the National Center for Education Statistics and available all over the Internet (for example, at, shows the STEM pipeline starting in 2001 with 4 million 9th graders in U.S. schools and ending in 2011 with a trickle of just 166,530 students predicted to leave the pipeline with STEM-related college degrees.

STEM Crisis Hyperbole

Given such widespread, repeated claims, unwary observers can't be blamed if they think that a STEM crisis does exist. However, these claims don't stand up under closer scrutiny. In fact, a decade of studies of the alleged STEM crisis—performed by researchers at the Rand Corporation (Butz et al., 2004); Duke University (Wadhwa, Gereffi, Rissing, & Ong, 2007); the Urban Institute (Howell & Salzman, 2007); Rutgers (Lowell, Salzman, Bernstein, & Henderson, 2009); the Economic Policy Institute (Salzman, Kuehn, & Lowell, 2013); the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (Levine, 2013); Ball State University (Hicks, 2014); and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2014), to name just a few—have been unable to find compelling evidence of any widespread shortage of STEM workers. Quite the opposite: These researchers have consistently found that the United States has an ample supply of STEM students and workers, except perhaps in a few computer technology and engineering specialty fields.
A strong indicator of a shortage in a particular labor category is a rise in wages because of increased demand. However, researchers repeatedly find that wages for STEM workers have remained stagnant for more than a decade, even for most computing work in the high-tech industry. In fact,, a California high-tech recruiting company, admitted last year that despite the rhetoric to the contrary, only a minimal number of IT-related jobs in Silicon Valley showed skill shortages (Rouen, 2013).
Employers' complaints that they can't find enough skilled workers may reflect the reality that the struggling economy has allowed them to become much more selective in their hiring since the mid-2000s (Begley, 2005). Employers want new STEM graduates to be experienced, work-ready, and able to contribute from their first day onward—as well as to be critical thinkers, clear communicators, and innovative problem solvers. If current STEM applicants don't meet these standards, employers seem content to wait for their perfect candidate to appear (Cappelli, 2012).
In addition, employers have cut back on internal training; some surveys report that fewer than 25 percent of employees now receive employer-provided training (Büning, Cantrell, Marshall, & Smith, 2011). Recent data show that in the past decade, U.S. businesses have reduced by more than 40 percent the number of apprentices they hired. This would hardly be a logical course of action if companies were facing a shortage of qualified job applicants (Cappelli, 2014).
Even the leaky STEM pipeline is not as leaky as previously thought. Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2013) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (2013) show that attrition rates for college students majoring in STEM subjects are not nearly as high as claimed. Further, the number of students declaring STEM-related majors has been steadily rising for years (National Science Foundation, 2014); many universities are now saying that they're having difficulty handling the "tsunami" of students wanting to study popular subjects like computer science (Lazowska, Roberts, & Kurose, 2014).
It's debatable whether most of those future STEM graduates will find a job in their chosen field of study, however. The Economic Policy Institute indicates that only about 50 percent of STEM graduates are hired into a STEM job (Salzman, Kuehn, & Lowell, 2013), and 350,000 new STEM graduates are competing for about 275,000 new STEM job openings each year (Charette, 2013). Even for students with engineering and computer science degrees, hiring into the same broad field as their degree rarely reaches 70 percent.

Moving Away from STEM Nonsense

Claims of massive STEM worker shortages are nothing new, of course. Harvard's Michael Teitelbaum (2014) documents five science and engineering talent "alarm–boom–bust" cycles that the United States has gone through since the end of World War II. Each alarm was sparked by fear that the nation was falling behind a military or economic competitor and lacked the skilled citizenry to compete successfully. And each time, the cries of crisis turned out to be highly embellished or outright deceitful.
As an unfortunate side effect, each false alarm, including the one we are now experiencing, creates an illusory demand for scientists and engineers. When the boom turns into a bust, it ends up discouraging future students from pursing those careers. The dramatic growth in university students chasing computer science degrees during the 1990s dot-com boom—and the equally spectacular drop-off after the bubble burst in the early 2000s—is but one recent example (National Science Foundation, 2012).
We don't need to raise an army of STEM saviors to protect the American way of life from destruction. We would be much better served by less hyperventilating about STEM worker shortages and more focus on improving overall STEM literacy—by a commitment to ensuring that all students have a basic mastery of STEM subjects blended with the arts and humanities.
We live in an increasingly complex, interconnected, technological world. Successfully navigating this world, not only today but into the future, requires understanding the basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that underpin it. Without that knowledge, to paraphrase futurist Arthur C. Clarke (2000), the products of science and engineering start to become indistinguishable from "magic" (p. 2), creating unwarranted illusions about what these products can accomplish.
But just as important as a basic knowledge of STEM is a broad knowledge of the arts and humanities. These fields, along with a foundation of STEM disciplines, enable us to reason thoughtfully about the risks, opportunities, problems, and dilemmas that the products of science, engineering, and technology impose on society.
For instance, digital technology allows for widespread sharing and communication of information, yet at the risk of the erasure of personal privacy. Genetic advances promise early detection of disease, but also raise the temptation to pursue eugenics. Robotics can increase business productivity, but at the cost of great worker unemployment. How does one properly balance the rewards against the risks that new technology creates without intimately knowing both the demands of the technology and the aspirations of humankind? Without some blended mastery of STEM with arts and humanities, students will find themselves increasingly "in over their heads" (Kegan, 1998) and poorly equipped to deal with the mental and ethical demands of the 21st century.
Various instructional and curriculum options exist for integrating STEM with the arts and humanities. The ideal would be required courses beginning in middle school and going into high school that specifically integrate the science, math, history, and English knowledge currently being taught separately within a particular grade.
The multidisciplinary approach that underpins professor David Christian's Big History Project offers an example of how STEM and the humanities can be blended together to explore the full breadth and depth of a subject. Instead of treating historical facts from the sciences and the arts as disconnected pieces of some fuzzy puzzle, the Big History Project tries to show students how the ideas in these subjects are interconnected and inseparable. Although not without its own pedagogical and objectivity issues (for example, the project is underwritten by Bill Gates, and questions have been raised as to whether its funding source biases its content), the Big History Project does demonstrate how STEM and the humanities and arts can be taught in a holistic manner (Sorkin, 2014).

The Real Skill Shortage

If we truly want students who can think critically, solve problems, and communicate their thoughts clearly, then some kind of systematic, cross-disciplinary instruction is required. An integration of STEM with the arts and humanities will help students learn how to learn—which is, in my opinion, the actual skill shortage we face today.
Nineteenth-century Scottish chemist, poet, and essayist Samuel Morison Brown wrote that the scientific and engineering discoveries that were revolutionizing the society of his time demanded that schools teach all students "not mathematics, but a mathematical way of thinking, not natural history, but a classic way of thinking, and not natural philosophy, but an inductive way of thinking" (quoted in Swinton, 1860, p. 2). If we want to move from STEM nonsense to STEM sense, we would be wise to follow Brown's advice and create STEM literacy in all our children.

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Cappelli, P. (2014). Skill gaps, skill shortages and skill mismatches: Evidence for the U.S. (Working Paper 20382). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

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