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More data needed on the STEM ‘shortage’

Orange figures holding up signs that say "hire me"

(Courtesy: iStock/geopaul)

By Margaret Harris

“Science has always been the Cinderella amongst the subjects taught in schools…not for the first time our educational conscience has been stung by the thought that we are as a nation neglecting science.”

Sounds like something David Cameron or Barack Obama might have said last week, right? Wrong. In fact, it comes from a report by the grandly named Committee to Enquire into the Position of Natural Sciences in the Educational System of Great Britain, which presented its findings clear back in…1918.

I came across this quotation thanks to Emma Smith and Patrick White, a pair of education researchers at the University of Leicester who have spent the past few years studying the long-term career paths of people with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Smith and White presented the preliminary findings of their study at a seminar in Leicester yesterday, and one of the themes of their presentation – reflected in the above quote – was the longevity of concerns about a shortage of STEM-trained people, especially university graduates. As Smith pointed out, worries about the number and quality of STEM graduates are not new and, historically, reports of a “STEM crisis” have been as much about politics as they have economic supply and demand.

Smith and White’s results pose some tough questions for modern-day proponents of a “STEM shortage”. In particular, they found that:

• The career destinations of STEM and non-STEM graduates are not radically different, and a degree in a STEM subject does not guarantee students a better-than-average chance of getting a job;

• Only a minority of STEM graduates go into jobs that require a high level of STEM skills, and over the course of their careers, the proportion falls as members of the cohort leave to take up non-STEM roles;

• STEM graduates whose first job is outside STEM are very unlikely to move into a STEM field later in their careers.

The full report hasn’t been published yet, but in their talk, Smith and White gave some tantalizing details. One is that STEM subjects are not monolithic. Although there was little overall difference between the proportions of STEM and non-STEM graduates entering “graduate-level” jobs, there were significant variations within STEM. For example, engineers are more likely than their social-science counterparts to obtain graduate jobs, but biologists do worse, while physical-science graduates are somewhere in the middle. The researchers also found some major institutional differences. Overall, slightly less than half of engineering graduates actually become professional engineers, but the percentage is much higher among those who attend universities in the Russell Group (a collection of 24 research-intensive UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge).

Smith and White’s findings are based on three main sources of data. The first is the UK Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) “First Destination” survey, which gathers employment data from all students six months after they have left university. This survey has a very high response rate (around 80%) and covers the years between 1994 and 2011 (it has continued since then, but in a different format, which makes recent results hard to compare with earlier data). The second source of data is the 1970 British Cohort Study, which follows the lives of 17,000 people who were born in a certain week of April 1970. Smith and White looked at employment data from a series of five “sweeps” taken when members of this cohort were aged between 26 and 42. The final data source was the National Child Development Study, which gathers similar employment data as the 1970 study, but for a cohort born slightly earlier, in March 1958.

As rich as these data sets are, they have some frustrating limitations. One drawback is that the most comprehensive source, the HESA survey, doesn’t tell us about the eventual career destinations of students who go on to do Master’s degrees or PhDs. It only covers what graduates are doing six months after they finish their undergraduate courses. People with higher degrees are included in the two cohort studies, but their numbers are tiny; White told me that depending on how you “slice” the data, you could end up with only one or two higher-degree individuals in your sample. That makes it really hard to say anything about whether students with advanced STEM degrees are more likely to obtain (and then stay in) jobs that require their skills. It’s also difficult to tell what’s happening to STEM graduates who take STEM jobs and then leave the field later on; Smith and White strongly suspect that many of them are going into management, but without analysing the data on an individual level, they can’t say for certain.

Perhaps the biggest gap, though, is data about what STEM graduates actually want to do. If half of them are taking non-STEM jobs after graduation because they’ve decided their interests lie elsewhere, or because they think they can make more money doing finance or whatever, then in my book, that’s a “win”. It’s good to have scientifically literate people in all walks of life, and if their new roles make them happy, I certainly wouldn’t want to stop them. But if they’re leaving because they can’t find a good job that actually uses their skills, then that’s a problem. By the end of the seminar, the words going through my head weren’t those of the 1918 committee, but those of Arthur Conan Doyle, who had his creation Sherlock Holmes cry, “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay.”

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  1. Steve Younger

    I know many STEM majors over 50 that can’t find employment. Age discrimination seems to be the norm in this area of employment.

    • I know age discrimination is a major issue in IT. When my father (an Internet security guy in his early 60s) was on the job market a couple of years ago, I told him to leave the dates of his education off his CV and to remove other age-revealing info (“30 years’ experience in x”) as well. He eventually got hired. But I’m less familiar with age discrimination in other areas of STEM. What’s your experience been?

  2. PatL

    Not sure about the view in the Great Britain, but here in the Colonies the H1B visa puts tremendous downward pressure on lowering the number of jobs available to our children and the pay scales. It’s a win-win for somebody who is likely not a STEM graduate… We’re thinking of throwing a few Politicians into Boston Harbour? What say yee?

    • The UK has no equivalent of the H1B visa programme, and the Conservative-led governments in office since 2010 have placed increasingly severe restrictions on immigration from outside the European Union. These restrictions apply to skilled and highly-skilled migrants and are very severe; I nearly fell foul of them myself despite having a PhD in physics (n.b. I was born in the US and gained my UK citizenship only about a year ago).

      There have been, in my opinion (note that Physics World has no official opinion on these matters), many bad effects due to these restrictions on skilled migration, but one of the few good effects is that the UK’s STEM jobs market has not been significantly affected by companies bringing in large numbers of skilled and semi-skilled workers from overseas. So, since the Leicester researchers’ work was on the UK only, all of their conclusions about demand for STEM graduates apply even in the absence of an H1B-type programme.

  3. Mark williams

    Some surprising results, some not so much. Almost all my friends who graduated like me in chemistry and didn’t go into a PhD ended up hating how hard it was to progress in organic chemistry type jobs despite this being the most practical application of their degrees. Some end up converting to law, more end up in accounting. It seems like a money thing.

  4. PatL

    Thanks for the additional insights!

    My daughter is not in a STEM field but her experiences in Autria are somewhat similar to your own and I have great appreciation for this phrase “fell foul of them myself”.

    There really are two parts to the conversation about STEM, what you like to do and what you want to be paid. When I went in to Engineering school (Boston, MA) in 1970, the nationwide hi-tech meltdown was gathering steam. When I graduated, the unemployment rate was in the 15% to 20% range for hi-tech workers in the Boston area.
    It’s what I wanted to do and had hope that some day I’d make some money at it too. I soon realized that a large part of getting into and staying in hi-tech would be about competition. I don’t mind the competition.

    In the modern day, the H1B visa is a giant spigot the opens a bit more each year. Folks who come in on H1B visas are willing to do almost anything to get and keep their jobs. That is a heck of an attitude and situation to compete against.

    Was there anything in the study about the “export” of STEM jobs?

  5. John Duffield

    I know too many physics graduates who can’t get jobs in physics to have any patience with the STEM shortage. And I know of imported third-world IT workers whilst UK IT workers struggle to find work. IMHO the worthy ideal of physicists etc working in various countries is corrupted by globalisation which results in a race to the bottom for ordinary people, whilst the rich get richer.


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