The STEM Surplus, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 9 2013 @ 7:37am

A reader remarks on the glut of degrees in science, technology, engineering and math:

I’ve got a PhD in chemical engineering and I work in early drug discovery. I’m actually doing pretty well. I’m in a specialized field that doesn’t tend to attract folks (I do a lot of math). My wife, however, is a different story. She has a PhD in oncological sciences – a molecular biologist with a speciality in cancer development and treatment. She spent six years getting a PhD, but really the best she can hope for is a $40K/year job as a post doc, which she will most likely have to do for at least four years in order to get a job making about $100-110K/year. By then she will be about 40.

There is no STEM shortage; there is a shortage of people willing to work for what companies want to pay. They get folks here on HB1 visas, and they are essentially treated like indentured servants. Sure they can change companies if: 1) they can get the same “position” and 2) the company will sponsor their visa. This is very difficult, and it gives the companies a lot of leverage, which they use to reduce wages. I have no problem with the HB1s; I think they should come with the same mobility that I’ve had. This would do a lot to remove the leverage companies have, and I’m fine with my wife and I competing with those folks.

You should really read Derek Lowe on the “myth of the STEM shortage.” He’s been covering this for quite a while. Also, check out Robert Cringely on H-1Bs.

More readers sound off:

I work in R&D for a large biotech company, one that would not survive if not for its capable and talented scientists and engineers. There is certainly no dearth of PhD-holders in biotech. That’s not what we need, and the obsession with graduate programs in STEM fields drives me crazy. We need master’s and especially bachelor’s degree candidates who are young and enthusiastic, willing to work long hours and weekends in a lab, on their feet, working with their hands, for a decade (at least), and who will be good at it. More and more, I see that our problem in hiring is not that there aren’t enough well-educated candidates; it’s that there are too many who are either overqualified for the roles that are really needed,or those who think that a PhD entitles them to an office and no grunt work.

Other things that will not fill our hiring gaps: associate’s degree candidates (rightly or wrongly, they are simply not respected or sought-after in an environment full of PhD, MS, and MBA degrees), visa-holders (several biotech firms have begun to restrict their sponsorship of visas and green cards below Director-level positions, which in bonkers), and non-STEM degree recipients (even our supply chain department, which does very little actual science, wants STEM backgrounds in new hires).

Once again, the people doing the educating and the people doing the hiring are not talking to each other enough, which is a whole different conversation.

Another perspective:

The analysis you excerpted from Robert Charette deals with aggregate number of STEM jobs and graduates, and I don’t have the hard data right now to either refute to agree with his conclusions. However, that does not mean that those STEM graduates are well aligned to the STEM jobs or that a macro surplus doesn’t mask micro shortages that might exist.

As you might imagine, STEM graduates are highly specialized, even at the bachelor’s degree level. I have a degree in electrical engineering from Cal Poly Pomona, but that doesn’t mean that when I graduated I would have been qualified for any job that could have been loosely categorized as “electrical engineering”. I would not, for example, have been qualified to work for an electrical power company.  I took one undergraduate class in power engineering, hated it, and got an A- in the one example of a class that my final grade was better than I deserved (there were a few more examples of the opposite, in my humble opinion).  Likewise, I would not have been qualified to take a job as an RF (radio frequency) engineer for, say, a company designing WiFi equipment, nor for a computer engineering position.  I was qualified to work in the semiconductor industry, which I did for 12+ years, or perhaps for a maker of optical fiber and laser equipment.

And that’s just at the entry level for people right out of college.  The specialization takes on greater and greater importance as you advance in your career.  After a few years, I wouldn’t have been qualified to work as a process engineer (responsible for a particular manufacturing process such as lithography or etching) or as a product engineer (responsible for failure analysis and product yield) in the factory I worked at when I started working there.  Companies want their experienced employees who make more to have the training, skills, and knowledge of someone who already works in the field, which I didn’t have.

I would venture to say other engineering disciplines like chemical and mechanical engineering are roughly the same, and it may be even worse for people with straight science degrees, like physics, chemistry, or biology, because you likely need either a master’s or doctorate degree to get employment in your field, and thus more specialization.

The country needs a vast amount of repairs, improvements, and new construction of our infrastructure, things like water and sewer systems, bridges and roads, levees and dams, and the power grid.  For that, we need civil engineers and electrical engineers with a specialization in power.  Not exactly the sexiest fields college students think of when they’re plotting out prospective career paths.  Large numbers of computer programmers with visions of working for Google or Apple don’t help us with this problem.  And I don’t know how many more there are like me, but I felt compelled to leave engineering because the semiconductor sector collapsed in the US, and even if I spoke Chinese, I don’t think I’d be interested in relocating there to work in the new factories to remain in the industry.  I couldn’t even find another job when I worked in the industry because the employers appeared to want people with on-the-job experience with the specific systems they use, not experience with a similar system but not exactly the same.  I’ve been out of engineering for so long, it would be impossible for me to go back to it.

So, yes, it might be the case that there are more overall STEM graduate than jobs, but that doesn’t mean that we have enough of the kinds of STEM graduates that we need and there are actually jobs they could get.