Is the STEM skills shortage overblown or even non-existent?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, supposedly in high demand, have had less-than-stellar salary growth and job openings over the past decade, a new analysis shows.

With the rising emphasis on tech across the business landscape, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills appear to be in high demand. Yet, one analysis finds the alleged shortfall of these skills isn't all it appears to be.

Photo credit: University of Maryland Media Relations Department

Robert Charette, writing in IEEE Spectrum,  says that despite the handwringing, "there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs." He points to a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that wages for U.S. IT and mathematics-related professionals have not grown appreciably over the past decade, and that they, too, have had difficulty finding jobs in the past five years. He lists a number of studies that refute the presence of a global STEM skills shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one, estimates that there was a net loss of  370 000 science and engineering jobs in the U.S. in 2011.

There isn't even agreement on what STEM jobs are, Charette points out. Even agencies of the U.S. government don't agree. The U.S. Department of Commerce puts the number of STEM jobs at 7.6 million, which "includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences as well as management," he relates. The National Science Foundation, on the other hand, estimates there are 12.4 million STEM jobs, taking in health-care workers,  psychologists and social scientists. Other data from Georgetown University finds that a majority of STEM graduates actually leave the STEM field altogether after ten years.

Perhaps what is needed is more polymath skills -- blending STEM with other disciplines such as business, law, or even the arts -- to drive innovation and entrepreneurship. Building a software company takes more than programming abilities -- it takes business savvy and vision.

STEM skills do have an important role in economic growth, Charette opines. "There is indeed a shortage -- a STEM knowledge shortage." While a STEM-based university degree isn't necessary, "improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks."

Ironically, while many non-STEM jobs require some level of STEM skills, many STEM jobs themselves are being displaced. Many of the skills needed in today's marketplace -- from auto repair to graphic arts to accounting -- call for computer proficiency, as they now entail work built on software. At the same time, many functions that may have required engineers and mathematicians are being automated -- algorithms have replaced many high-level mental tasks and processes. Even computer programmers and operators are finding their jobs are being automated. Perhaps non-STEM professionals need more STEM, but STEM professionals need more liberal arts.

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