For awhile now, I’ve been arguing against the notion of a STEM shortage, the idea that our labor problems stem in part from a failure to produce enough graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields to meet demand. This idea is, well, just wrong, plainly wrong. I aggregated a lot of the data here, and here’s a great piece from The Atlantic by Michael Teitelbaum making the case. I have been committed to debunking this idea for two major reasons. First, because facts matter, and one of the most dangerous things to us as a society are those ideas that sound good from a narrative point of view but lack factual backing. The idea of the STEM shortage plays into a bunch of our petty prejudices, most powerfully our idea of the future. But the data simply doesn’t back up that notion.
The second reason is because the notion of a STEM shortage plays into a misguided and destructive vision of our economy– a moralizing notion of our labor market where your outcomes are all a matter of choices that you have made. This is the chumps narrative, where people who have suffered in our labor market have done so because they have pursued foolish, “impractical” careers or education. Virginia Postrel has written cogently about this phenomenon in the past, pointing out, among other things, that it isn’t the case that people with supposedly impractical majors systematically underperform the average, and also that they are such a small slice of the labor force that they can’t possibly account for our problems. I’ve pointed out many times before that going to law school went overnight from being the mercenary path for those bent on riches to a pie-in-the-sky, impractical move for dreamers, as soon as the law job market collapsed. The narrative changes to preserve the idea that individuals are responsible for their own joblessness, and in so doing keeps us from pondering systemic change.
Look at the app economy, which was meant to be the hot new ticket into the land of abundance. (See this 2012 piece from The Atlantic for an indicative example of app economy woowoo.) What could better play into our notions of how to get ahead in America in this new age than the app economy? It’s dynamic! It’s innovative! It’s disruptive! Gone are the days of putting on a suit to go work in some stodgy firm. These days, it’s all about being your own boss, building an app with some buddies in your dorm room, and reaping the whirlwind. It’s a Tom Friedman wet dream, an Aspen Ideas Festival panel sprung to life, the validation of every buzzwordy Wired article and Business Insider post you’ve ever read.