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The STEM jobs paradox rumbles on

Illustrations of jobs versus candidates

On balance: STEM shortages and surveys.

By Hamish Johnston and Margaret Harris

Are countries such as the UK, the US and Canada suffering from a shortage of scientists and engineers, or are scientists and engineers struggling to find jobs there? Our US correspondent Peter Gwynne reports that, according to a recent survey, physicists in that country can expect to be rewarded with handsome salaries if they work in industry – which suggests that their skills are in great demand. However, over in the New York Review of Books, an article on “The frenzy about high-tech talent” claims that “by 2022 the [US] economy will have 22,700 non-academic openings for physicists. Yet during the preceding decade 49,700 people will have graduated with physics degrees.”

In the past few years, Physics World has published several articles on the “STEM shortage paradox”, where reports of severe skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) coexist with lukewarm – and sometimes borderline alarming – data on employment in these fields. Hence, conflicting reports on career prospects for physicists don’t really surprise us anymore (although this is actually slightly different to what we’ve seen before, in that rosy employment data are going up against a downbeat statement about demand, rather than vice versa). But even so, when two reports point in such different directions, it’s tempting to conclude that one of them must be wrong, or at least missing something important.

On a personal level, both of us know people, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have struggled to move their careers forward despite holding degrees in STEM fields. The six people we’re thinking about have racked up a total of six Bachelor’s degrees, two Master’s degrees and one PhD between them, in subjects that range from physics and chemistry to electrical engineering and computer science. None of them are academics, so they aren’t part of the chronically hyper-competitive market for early-career researchers. But despite these advantages, in recent years they’ve all gone through extended periods of unemployment, often followed by underemployment.

These are just anecdotes, though, and as the saying goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. That’s why surveys and statistics are so important: they show us whether our personal experiences are typical. But when the data are in conflict, what should we do?

One option, of course, is to look for more data, and we found some thanks to an engineering-physics graduate in Canada. He pointed us towards a report from the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) entitled “Crisis in Ontario’s Engineering Labour Market: Underemployment Among Ontario’s Engineering-Degree Holders”. Ontario is Canada’s most populous province and has a mixed economy that is typical of most advanced countries – so the report is likely to resonate with STEM graduates elsewhere.

The OSPE defines underemployment as the situation where someone with an engineering degree is employed in a job that does not necessarily require engineering qualifications. The report claims that in 2011 fewer than one-third of the 225,000 university-educated engineers in Ontario were actually doing what the OSPE classifies as jobs that require an engineering degree. In the true spirit of the STEM paradox, the report asks “Given the high rate of underemployment, why does government and some industry leaders believe there is a shortage of engineers in the province?”

The OSPE study also looked at how other STEM graduates have fared in Ontario, and the results are mixed. Nearly 70% of medical graduates are working in their chosen field, as are about 40% of maths and computer-science graduates. However, physical- and life-sciences graduates have fared much worse, with only about 8% working in jobs directly related to their fields of study.

But, of course, “fared much worse” is very subjective. One of us [HJ] knows several physics PhDs who have gone on to very lucrative careers in Canada’s financial industry. They got those jobs through contacts made while at graduate school and they use many of the skills they acquired while doing their PhDs. And they aren’t alone, either: people with physics degrees go on to do all sorts of amazing things, as Physics World’s long-running “Once a physicist” column proves.

Where, then, does that leave us? In our view, all of these reports are imperfect in some way. The survey of US physics PhDs (which was carried out by the American Institute of Physics) is reportedly the most systematic ever done for physicists in industry, but it still had a relatively small sample size. The OSPE is an advocacy organization, so it has an interest in making (or keeping) engineering qualifications rare so as to boost demand for its members’ skills. Finally, it’s not clear how the authors of the New York Review of Books article are defining “non-academic openings for physicists”, given the diversity of careers on offer to people with physics degrees.

With so much conflicting information out there, then, our advice to people planning a career in a physics-related industry is threefold. First, don’t believe everything you hear about STEM skills shortages. Even where they exist, they don’t guarantee that you will walk straight into your dream job on a high salary. Second, keep your options open. Physics is flexible, so use that to your advantage. But finally – and most importantly – don’t make decisions based on a bunch of confusing and sometimes contradictory employment data. Instead, concentrate on finding a career doing something you like, and are good at. Now there’s a concept!

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One comment to The STEM jobs paradox rumbles on

  1. M. Asghar

    Please do not go on force-feeding us on the STEM job situation only in UK, USA and Canada, try to see as to what is happenung in the wider globalised world, because PW is supposed to be a world wide site.


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