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STEM degree no guarantee of jobs

| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 7:34 p.m.

Science, technology, engineering and math — the fields collectively known as STEM — are all the rage these days. In an economy that is still struggling to regain its footing, boosting STEM is seen by many as a path to jobs.

Except: What if it isn't?

As STEM has become an education buzzword in recent years, a steady stream of research has emerged that challenges the notion of STEM as an economic elixir. In some STEM careers, the employment picture is downright lousy.

“Record Unemployment Among Chemists in 2011,” screamed the March headline in Science magazine's Careers Blog. A headline from June: “What We Need is More Jobs for Scientists.”

Unemployment in STEM fields is still well below the general population and slightly below college graduates in general. That “record” unemployment for chemists, for example, was 4.6 percent, compared with overall unemployment at that time of 8.8 percent.

Nevertheless, the glut of workers in some STEM areas (resulting in flat wages, and STEM grads forced to take jobs in non-STEM fields) directly contradicts the widely held view that the United States suffers from a critical shortage of qualified STEM graduates.

The truth, experts say, is more complicated.

“In a general sense, science and innovation do create jobs and drive growth,” said Elizabeth Popp Berman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany whose book “Creating the Market University” examines the history of university research and its economic impact. “As a nation, having lots of scientists and people inventing stuff is good for us.”

But that doesn't mean all STEM graduates have a guaranteed job, Berman stressed. The STEM employment picture, Berman said, is “very mixed” and largely dependent upon a student's particular major. Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not.

Some studies, meanwhile, have challenged the notion of an overall STEM worker shortage — instead finding that the United States is producing vastly more STEM graduates than there are jobs awaiting them. As science organizations and corporations continue to sound the STEM shortage alarm, critics charge that these groups are motivated by self-interest — tech companies, for example, have claimed a shortage of trained workers even as they laid off thousands of employees and moved those jobs to low-wage developing countries.

“It's a way for them to sort of excuse why they're shifting so much work offshore,” said Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform released a report recommending slightly discounted tuition for students pursuing certain majors — primarily STEM. Though Scott has not yet formally embraced the proposal, the idea has sparked a backlash from humanities professors who feel their departments are being marginalized.

A group of frustrated University of Florida history professors recently began a petition against the two-tiered pricing idea. The petition predicts the state's focus on steering students into “strategic areas of emphasis” will wreak havoc on English, history, and psychology departments, among others.

University of Florida associate professor Lillian Guerra, who teaches Cuban & Caribbean history, helped organize the petition. Guerra said UF's nationally ranked Center for Latin American Studies — the nation's oldest, started in 1930 — was struggling even before this new idea of discounting STEM. After state lawmakers chopped about one-third of all Florida universities' funding in the past five years, Guerra said the center had to reduce the number of graduate students it admitted. That reduction in turn forced UF to hold fewer seminars — reducing its spotlight on the national stage.

Guerra, who left a teaching job at Yale to come to UF, said history, like all departments, is funded by the number of students it enrolls.

Making history majors more expensive, she argued, would inevitably reduce the number of students, meaning further cuts to an already-damaged department.

Scott has sometimes mocked liberal arts majors as impractical. However, anthropologists have been deemed important to national security by the Department of Defense. Its recent study on STEM-related workforce needs found that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology,” and it recommended “ongoing investment” in those two areas, even as the wars wind down.

Why did anthropology show up in a military STEM report? By some definitions, anthropology is a STEM field. There is no clear definition of what careers comprise STEM, making it easy for job projections to be radically altered based on what industries are counted.

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