Temper the STEM emphasis
It has become an article of faith among public policymakers today in Virginia and across the country: Universities and colleges must emphasize and expand their offerings in science, technology, engineering and math to meet the workplace demands of tomorrow.
It's also a view that disregards history and ignores a growing body of research suggesting an education in liberal arts, or at least grounded in critical thinking and clear writing, is as valuable as ever.
Maybe that sounds self-serving coming from someone who has degrees in rhetoric and communication and in English and who writes for a living. But consider:
A few weeks ago, the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers' magazine, Spectrum, published a thorough, and thoroughly contrarian, report bluntly titled "The STEM Crisis is a Myth."
IEEE isn't some fringe group; it's globally recognized and traces its history to the days of the telegraph and Thomas Edison. It bills itself as "the world's largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity."
But the Spectrum report systematically dismantles the hyperbole deployed by state and federal politicians, who stoke worries about an under-supply of scientists and engineers and the consequences for national security and the economy.
It notes the same warnings have been issued for generations. Meanwhile, many STEM workers' salaries have been stagnant or lagged growth rates of non-STEM workers' for a decade or more, a detail inconsistent with signs of a labor shortage. It points out 11.4 million STEM graduates work in unrelated fields, with more graduates looking for work every year, and just 277,000 related job openings annually in the nation. It highlights risks inherent in such jobs today, including the shift toward contract work, outsourcing, the use of H-1B visas to bring in foreign workers and a decline in employer-sponsored training, "so out-of-work engineers find they quickly become technologically obsolete."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes data on jobs and industries, including employment outlooks. Chemical, aerospace, mechanical and electrical and electronics engineering jobs are expected to grow slower than average through 2020; positions in nuclear and civil engineering, computer programming and information systems management are projected to grow at about an average clip. Software developers, database administrators and actuaries will increase faster.
And so will jobs in public relations. Technical writers can expect to witness a growth rate nearly on par with civil engineers. Their skills will be essential to communicating the work being done by scientists and mathematicians. Those findings underscore the notion that effectively explaining a complex system can be as important as actually creating it.
Last week, Northeastern University released a survey of Americans and employers that reinforced the need for broad skills emphasized through liberal arts. Sixty-five percent of adults, and 73 percent of hiring managers, reported "being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job specific skills can be learned at work."
A majority of adults and hiring managers also described U.S. higher education as doing a fair or poor job to prepare future workers. Yet more favored pushing for college students to "graduate with communications, writing and critical thinking skills," rather than science, technology, engineering and math degrees, to increase employment rates.
Still, the laserlike focus on STEM in public policy persists. President Barack Obama has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars for new science and technology-related education initiatives to "win the future."
The evidence suggests an education that places comparable emphasis on critical thinking and effective communication is essential to a graduate's success in the workforce, as well as to economic and national security.
That demands higher education policy be shaped with a long and wide view and with consideration for qualitative and quantitative value. And it requires a willingness to examine a long-held assumption when evidence contradicts it.
Shawn Day and be reached at email@example.com.