Education policy leaders have been obsessed with STEM for many years now. They note the relatively high salaries of students who complete school with STEM skills. And industry leaders repeatedly complain about the chronic shortages of skilled workers in technical fields. If only our schools could produce more graduates with these technical skills, we could help address industry’s needs as well as launch students into lucrative careers.
Huge investments have been made to steer students into STEM fields. Philanthropists have backed coding camps and embraced STEM-focused charters. And policymakers have poured millions into expanding STEM programs in public schools and universities. Arkansas has gone as far as requiring that every public and charter high school offer a computer science course so that all students can learn to code.
A fascinating recent paper by David Deming and Kadeem Noray, however, suggests that the payoff to students for pursuing STEM may be short-lived. STEM workers initially experience elevated salaries and rates of employment, but the skills their occupations require change so rapidly that their training quickly becomes obsolete. While most workers in other occupations tend to experience a significant rise in earnings as experience enhances their skills, STEM workers tend to have flatter career earning trajectories. As Deming and Noray put it:
We show that the economic payoff to majoring in applied STEM fields such as engineering and computer science is initially very high, but declines by more than 50 percent in the first decade after college. STEM majors have flatter age-earnings profiles than college graduates who major in other subjects, even after controlling for cognitive ability and other important determinants of earnings.
Like professional athletes or movie stars, STEM workers may make a lot of money right out of the gate, but their prospects fade quickly. If they don’t have non-technical skills to make the transition into management or other occupations, they may suffer the fate of former athletes who couldn’t get an analyst gig or aging actresses who aren’t Meryl Streep. It’s ironic that the same kinds of education pundits who cluck about how irresponsible it is to offer sports and theater opportunities to students for fear of encouraging them into such high-risk and short-lived careers remain blissfully unaware of the similar (albeit much less severe) career dynamics in many STEM fields.
And as to those severe labor shortages that the tech industry complains about, Deming and Noray say: “Faster technological progress creates a greater sense of shortage, but it is the new STEM skills that are scarce, not the workers themselves.” Tech companies are laying off older workers with slightly older skill sets at the same time that they are starving for new workers with the latest training. If tech companies want to solve their shortage problem they may need to look in the mirror rather than expect the education system to fix this entirely for them. They may need to invest more in retraining older workers to keep their skills current. Or they may need to increase the pay premium for starting workers enough to entice more to take the risks of having a short-lived lucrative career.
While schools still need to do much to improve their efforts in math and science, they should avoid narrowing their focus too much on STEM. Doing so may serve industry’s insatiable appetite for new, skilled workers, but it may do a long-term dis-service to their students who need a broader set of skills to prosper over their entire working careers (let alone cheating them of the broader education they need to be more enlightened human beings).