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Is the STEM job advantage a myth?

(MoneyWatch) Politicians, policy makers, parents and students assume that the straightest path to a great job is by majoring in what is often called a STEM discipline -- science, technology, engineering or math. Indeed, President Barack Obama has set a goal of creating a million new STEM college graduates in the next 10 years, along with 100,000 new teachers in those fields. Meanwhile some politicians are urging state universities to ditch unpopular liberal arts and embrace more STEM education instead. 

The popularity of STEM majors can be explained in large part by the belief that there are plenty of jobs in these fields. Under this view, these jobs that are going begging because not enough Americans have the skills to qualify for these positions. Americans also widely believe that students who graduate in STEM subjects will earn higher salaries. (I addressed this latter belief in a recent post that poked holes in that notion.)

If many STEM majors aren't enjoying outsized salaries, maybe the assumption that there are many jobs available in these fields is wrong, too. In an in-depth article this week, The Chronicle of Higher Education took a long look at this question and concluded that the STEM job advantage is a myth.

The Chronicle talked with many experts in this field who emphatically stated that there is no shortage of workers in STEM disciplines. The unemployment rates in various STEM fields are generally lower than the national unemployment rate of 7.2 percent, but they are high by historic standards. 

While petroleum engineers are in demand because of the natural gas boom and some information technology workers are enjoying raises, many others in the STEM fields are stuck with stagnant wages and surprisingly  limited prospects. Here is an excerpt from the article that sums up what STEM grads are facing:

[I]f you're a biologist, chemist, electrical engineer, manufacturing worker, mechanical engineer, or physicist, you've most like seen your paycheck remain flat at best. If you're a recent grad in those fields looking for a job, good luck. A National Academies report suggests a glut of life scientists, lab workers, and physical scientists, owing in part to over-recruitment of science Ph.D. candidates by universities. And postdocs, many of whom are waiting longer for academic spots, are opting out of science careers at higher rates, according to the National Science Foundation.

So why do Americans overwhelmingly believe that majoring in a STEM field is a ticket to a great paying job?

The claims about STEM shortages come from employers, along with their lobbyists and trade associations, claims Michael Teitelbaum, who a fellow in science policy at Harvard University and a senior advisor at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The tech industry can benefit if Americans -- and more importantly -- politicians believe that America is falling behind in producing highly skilled workers. While claiming that there is a STEM shortage, industry groups have lobbied Congress to allow more foreign IT workers to work in the U.S. 

"This is all about industry wanting to lower wages," Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If your child wants to major in a STEM, make sure he or she is doing so for the right reasons. It looks like the popular motivations for turning to these majors -- a practically guaranteed job and a high salary -- are no longer sure things.

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