Is what we are preaching to young people about their education good advice? I have a feeling it may be crap.
Every day I hear someone saying that the future is all about science, technology, engineering, or math - the STEM subjects. This they are assured will land them a great job with high pay. We tell them that these are the centerpiece skills of the future.
Whether this is true or not, it seems that almost everyone has drunk the Cool-Aid.
Survey’s of CEOs regularly put finding and keeping top talent as their number one concern. This often means engineers, computer programmers, and other technical people. Many CEOs and recruiters feel certain that there is a shortage of technical talent, yet according to the Center for Immigration Studies (link below), there is no shortage of STEM workers. Plenty of new math, science, and engineering graduates are turned out of our universities every year, but over 50% of them do not get a STEM job.
This is primarily because hiring managers have raised requirements to levels that are unrealistic, require advanced degrees or highly specialized majors, and do not want to hire anyone inexperienced. Salary is also a huge factor and firms can lower the salaries they pay by using H1-B visa holders and other foreign workers,
If firms genuinely could not find the talent they need, they would lower requirements or restructure the available work, raise wages to the point that the jobs become more attractive or they will invest significantly in training or internships. None of this has happened.
There are few internships (which historically were used as a way to train or provide experience to younger potential workers.) and only a slightly increased focus on internal training.
The simple fact is that most organizations are able to find the talent they need at a reasonable price.
Even if projections showed a need for more STEM graduates, we have to realize that projections of future job needs are notoriously wrong. Back in the early 1990’s there were projections that we would need many thousand HTML programmers, yet today the need is minimal. We trained thousands of people to be certified network administrators only to leave them jobless. New jobs with new requirements are constantly created, and old ones disappear. Predicting which jobs will be affected is not possible except in the very short term.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists only two STEM-type jobs in its top 30 occupations expected to grow the most. (see link below) These are software developers and nurses. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists aren’t on the list at all.
On the other hand, some STEM-related jobs are also he fastest to decline because of automation and robots. These include certain technician jobs and those in skilled manufacturing that require a technical background (see link below).
When we encourage young people to enter a STEM profession we may doing them more harm than good.
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
The economy that is growing around us needs and uses a very different type of worker. The new generation of workers needs a broader base of skills and knowledge than any previous generation. While science and math are important, they are just pieces of a greater whole that include the arts, history, psychology, philosophy, literature, language, ethics, and culture.
The best way to ensure we have the skilled people we need is to develop people who have broad skills and knowledge. We need to encourage young people to think critically and apply scientific, historical, ethical, and social perspectives to their decisions. People with a broad education are more likely to adapt to whatever needs arise and learn the skills they need quickly. This is the realm of a well-designed liberal arts education.
Google and many other firms are focusing on hiring young people who have motivation, learning ability, good social skills, and a cooperative mindset. They are rejecting narrowly educated technologists or engineers. Even the U.S. Navy is changing how it staffs its newest ships and are reducing crews from several hundred to less than 100 (link below), focusing on people who can switch from doing one thing to another quickly and who can learn multiple disciplines. The day of the expert is waning.
The New Economy- From Hardware to Software
What has been happening is a transformation of the workplace. We are shifting from a world where the glory was in hardware - making, building, and inventing machines and tools - to one of design, software development, and service.
Robots will take over most of the manufacturing and engineering work. Automation has supplemented engineers, reducing the need for them, and driving efficiency. Automation is entering the hospital, the surgery, and even the school with the advent of MOOCs that allow education to be distributed from one professor to thousands. Even architects can work mostly alone these days. Similar reductions have occurred in almost every field, from civil engineering to the semiconductor industry.
Most firms in the United States and Europe do not make anything directly. They are innovation and design centers, neither of which need or use large numbers of engineers, scientists, or technologists. Apple prints on the back of every iPhone, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”
Since 2000, manufacturing employment has fallen by over 28 percent, or by nearly five million jobs. There are some 22 percent fewer factories in the United States today than there were in 2000.
Apple and other firms depend on a rather eclectic group of talent – people who make up a large portion of what Richard Florida has called the Creative Class. These are writers, designers, artists, cooks, people who care for the aged, and the like.
Vocational jobs will also be plentiful, ranging from electricians to carpenters and from landscapers to personal assistants.
So what do you tell your child?
My advice to a young person: Invest in a broad education, whether formally acquired or informally gained through self-study and travel. Be open to new ideas, read widely, discuss your ideas with people who don’t agree with you, learn to think critically, and be honest with yourself. If you feel called to engineering or math, go for it. But, if you are being pushed into it against your will, resist – the Cool-Aid may not be that good. The future will have plenty for the liberal arts graduate.