STEM: too few positions, too few applicants?

It’s become a cliché that news articles can brush off, but STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as a set of tightly interrelated fields) has received a long list of praises from almost every level of government and other type of authority in the US. In spite of the largely positive coverage, many critics have noted that how people talk about and seek to affect the STEM fields is often divorced from the reality that there are more than enough people capable of working in those fields (globally or nationally) and that the perceived scarcity of STEM-trained workers is maybe deliberately created to encourage certain policy ends.

Part of what seems desirable to many STEM companies is a basic outcome of supply and demand – creating a vast supply of STEM workers is of great use to those hiring in that field, in that they get their pick among them. What STEM companies need isn’t more workers trained in new technologies or otherwise more directly useful to them as workers. Rather, what they want is an even more cutthroat competition for those types of jobs, leading to applicants accepting lower wages, fewer benefits, and longer hours. Encouraging new visa policies only further intensifies the power inequalities in STEM workplaces, giving companies even more options, and increasing the number of workers whose residency status and employment are directly related.

Some new information has come to light that calls into question those dynamics. A recent report on STEM in early education by the California division of The Education Trust found that many students of color and lower income students in the diverse state have limited and lower quality opportunities to learn basic STEM concepts. While in the economy at large STEM workers are steadily becoming a less rare and hence valuable commodity, STEM teaching in California public schools faced a hiring shortfall of 199 teachers for the 2013-2014 school year. That may sound small, but that gap between needed and available STEM teachers “likely affected about 28,000 California students” and seems to be one of the key components in the racial and class-related gaps in education.

2015-10-19_1552From the report’s accompanying infographic, available here.

At first it may seem strange that STEM-trained workers simultaneously outstrip available jobs and are chronically unavailable for key positions. In some ways, however, this may regrettably reflect the cultural values encouraged in STEM fields. As most of the praise for STEM makes clear, it is seen as inherently marketable or otherwise tied to a life of security if not prosperity. Stereotypes of STEM workers – as at best socially awkward and at worst actively antisocial – are a sometimes loving and sometimes critical reflection of that assessment. They’re supposedly good with figures and money, not with people.

Recent actions within the tech industry make that seem at times intimately connected to a libertarian disdain for the public sector and a patronizing approach towards those who don’t own a company. From my parents working in STEM themselves, I have run into more than a few people who seemed intent on demonstrating that stereotype, including one who kept a (Jesus Camp style) life-size cutout of President Bush in his office well into the Obama years. There’s a blurry line between being better with code than people and actually caring more about your business than your communities. STEM seems to either attract or encourage a sizable number of people who regularly mix those personalities and politics together.

If we think of STEM as something of a subculture, the impression of many seems to be that it’s a space where a certain type of student and eventual worker is expected and others aren’t. There are racial and gendered dimensions of that, but it also leads to an anticipation that STEM workers will work primarily in non-service sectors, and largely in the private sector as well. Schools, especially underfunded public schools full of younger kids, are thought of as basically the last place a STEM worker would want to be. Potentially as a result of that, our society has created a generation of STEM workers who at an even higher rate than other potential teachers, avoid those types of jobs.

I spoke recently about this issue with a friend, herself a part-time teacher in an after-school educational environment that focuses on engineering and computer science skills. She had a number of thoughts on the issue, expressing a dissatisfaction with both the cultural norms within STEM as well as the broader education system. As someone who works at the intersection between the two, she surprised me by frankly calling them in some sense “incompatible”. She made clear that she loves her students, but thought of the work that goes into helping them as literally a “sacrifice” in spite of the culture surrounding what she was teaching her students being, in her words, “self aggrandizing”.

While she mentioned the on-going problem of low pay in education, she also seemed to note that the nature of the different types of work available to STEM-trained workers contributes to this. What seemed clear to her was the the economically devaluing of teaching younger students went hand-in-hand with the labor’s characterization as self abnegating and even feminine. Recognizing that, she said that the paucity of that type of teachers in the STEM fields probably “won’t change until there’s more women [in STEM].” Efforts to diversify STEM are widely understood as improving the lots of the many groups largely shut out of those growing industries, but it seems like it would also improve the lot of STEM itself, by ultimately challenging some common expectations about what STEM can be used for.


The featured image is from the US Naval Academy’s atomic fingerprinting workshop, more information here.

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