Science, technology, engineering and math jobs are seen as being important for the modern economy.Collectively, these are known as STEM majors. Many people have talked about how important it is to have more STEM majors. The problem is, not all STEM majors are created equal. And this isn't a new phenomena.
From this 2005 report by the BLS
, we see that natural science technicians make less than most other STEM researchers. They have an average salary of almost 40 thousand dollars a year while STEM majors overall average 64 thousand dollars a year. Life Scientists don't do quite as badly on the salary front, but their jobs have been slowly disappearing even over the past year
of job expansions.
This isn't to say that science isn't important. It's just that supply and demand matter. Students aren't being told to think about their job prospects at all when they go to college. Many of them will end up in majors that seem comfortable and familiar because they've already taken similar classes in high school and they have potential career paths. The problem is that not all biology majors are going to be doctors (if our country was more efficient, maybe we'd be graduating primary care physicians directly from college in the first place) and not all chemistry majors are going to be pharmacists or go on for their PhD's and Master's degrees. And then even those with advanced degrees in chemistry aren't having a great time
. So instead these students end up with specialized skills that aren't in high demand relative to the supply of lab workers. And many of workers see lab work as a way to beef up their resume while they apply to schools and therefore are willing to take a lower salary, making it harder for those who just want to earn a living without having to go back for even more years of school after college.
And yet still everywhere people are promoting STEM education
and talking about STEM jobs
like they are all the same. It's too simple to just take out the S, both because smart students who are interested in basic research should be encouraged and because in fact some of the more niche scientific professions are seeing tighter markets, such as the market for geologists
which is being bid up by oil companies.
Alex Tabarrok has a post
discussing how important it is to have more STEM graduates. He uses the acronym STEM, but he's generally referring to CS, Chemical Engineering and Math and Statistics majors. There should be a better more widely recognized acronym to highlight the importance of the (non-life science S)TEM majors. What these majors have in common is they generally leave their students feeling comfortable with quantitative analysis. In this modern economy where everything is getting quantified and there is a greater opportunity for businesses to study these numbers and optimize more of their processes, being comfortable with mathematics and statistics is going to be more important. When people talk about training STEM majors, they should instead talk about TEQ majors and TEQ jobs. TEQ stands for Technology, Engineering and Quants. The term "quant" needs to be stolen back from finance, rehabilitated and then applied to everyone who is working with statistics and data analysis.
Science is important because it forms the backbone of long term technological progress. But we don't need to be telling every impressionable high school student that they should major in something that's familiar but difficult when their job prospects would be much better if they picked something that was less immediately familiar but more scarce in the market place relative to its demand.
Random related items:
Some jobs will have higher average salaries because they involve living in unpleasant places far away from civilized society. Many oil jobs fall into these categories. This should be adjusted for when students are looking at the average salaries of various majors.
It is possible that there is a negative selection effect to explain the difference in starting salary between engineering and natural science majors. It is more likely that a good engineer will work in industry after school (or a good CS major will drop out while still in school) while someone who excelled in natural sciences isn't likely to stop their education with just a Bachelor's degree.
The better schools provide superior networks and credentials, students at these schools can afford to think less about the average returns to their specific majors. The problem is that every school wants to pretend that they are one of the better schools so the myth of "What you study doesn't matter" is perpetuated even when it really shouldn't be.