A career in STEM doesn’t guarantee success. And STEM champions may be overselling the field as an easy path to better jobs with better pay, writes Stephen Sawchuk for Education Week.
First, there is no standard definition of a STEM career. And variations in what defines a STEM career skew labor-market data and workforce size estimates.
For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) considers social scientists part of the STEM workforce, while the U.S. Department of Commerce does not. The two agencies therefore disagreed on the size of the STEM workforce: the NSF concluded that 6.7 million people worked in STEM jobs, while the Commerce Department put the number at 9 million, drawing different pictures of the size of STEM-related fields.
It’s true that STEM jobs are predicted to grow at a faster rate over the next six years than jobs overall. And jobs in the core STEM fields—like science and engineering—tend to pay more than non-STEM jobs.
But not all STEM jobs are created equal. For example, majors in computer science and electrical engineering are among the highest-paid recent graduates. But majors in other STEM fields like biochemistry are among the lowest-paid grads, according to a report by Glassdoor.
And there’s no consensus on how much education is required for a job in a STEM field. Around 75% of STEM workers hold a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, but many graduates of STEM programs work in other industries. Researchers at Georgetown University argue that “the demand for STEM degrees and certificates is really a demand for the competencies that training in those fields confers, such as complex problem solving, troubleshooting, and deductive reasoning,” Sawchuk writes.
STEM careers may also exclude women and people of color. Research demonstrates that student interest, confidence, and achievement in STEM are all strongly correlated with postsecondary success in STEM fields. But female students and students of color often don’t enter the STEM pipeline because of early performance and achievement gaps.
Many K-12 schools are advocating for an increase in required coursework for STEM-related subjects to encourage student interest in STEM. Others are working to broaden the availability of Advanced Placement math and science classes. “For some researchers, the weight of the evidence suggests that the best way to improve the pipeline is to ensure that all students are provided a broad base of knowledge in the STEM fields,” Sawchuk writes (Sawchuk, Education Week, 5/22).