Not enough U.S. scientists? Don't blame schools

A study published in late October suggests that a shortage of career scientists in the U.S. is the fault of companies, and not educational institutions. "Steady as She Goes?  Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline" was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and written by researchers at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University; the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, and the Urban Institute.

From the report's executive summary:

In a previous paper, we found that universities in the United States actually graduate many more STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] students than are hired each year, and produce large numbers of top-performing science and math students. In this paper, we explore three major questions: (1) What is the “flow” or attrition rate of STEM students along the high school to career pathway? (2) How does this flow and this attrition rate change from earlier cohorts to current cohorts? (3) What are the changes in quality of STEM students who persist through the STEM pathway?


Our findings indicate that STEM retention along the pipeline shows strong and even increasing rates of retention from the 1970s to the late 1990s. The overall trend of increasingly strong STEM retention rates, however, is accompanied by simultaneous and sometimes sharp declines in retention among the highest performing students in the 1990s.


What might explain this loss of high-performing students from the STEM pipeline? This question cannot be answered by these data, but this analysis does strongly suggest that students are not leaving STEM pathways because of lack of preparation or ability. Instead, it does suggest that we turn our attention to factors other than educational preparation or student ability in this compositional shift to lower-performing students in the STEM pipeline. 
The decline in the retention of the top achievers in the late 1990s is of concern. This may indicate that the top high school graduates are no longer interested in STEM, but it might also indicate that a future in a STEM job is not attractive for some reason. The decline in retention from college to first job might also be due to loss of interest in STEM careers, but alternatively top STEM majors may be responding to market forces and incentives. 
From this perspective, the problem may not be that there are too few STEM qualified college graduates, but rather that STEM firms are unable to attract them. Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-STEM job because it pays better, offers a more stable professional career, and/or perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies.

Finally, we can stop blaming the schools for something.  :)  The overall quality of graduates may be of concern--after all, employers across industries have been complaining for a decade or more about poor communication skills in college graduates--but the science and tech skills of the highest-performing students, who typically constitute the most sought-after demographic by employers, are apparently strong.

What can we do to fill existing tech jobs if they aren't attractive enough to U.S. students? Writing for Business Week, Moira Herbst points out that Microsoft, Google, Oracle, and others in the Compete America tech industry lobbying group have been asking for years for changes to U.S. immigration policy that would increase both the number of tech workers coming to the U.S. from abroad and the length of time they can legally work in the U.S. 

Herbst cites a concern about the report from other STEM practitioners:

Heads of other professional organizations also criticized the study for its lack of specificity among industries. The argument is that some STEM students and graduates may be worth cultivating more than others. The report's authors said it would have been too difficult and costly to perform a longitudinal data analysis by individual industry.

"There's a problem when you paint with a large brush and put all STEM fields together," says Gordon Day, president of IEEE-USA, a professional group of engineers. "We want to encourage the best and the brightest, smart and trained, entrepreneurial and energetic individuals to create jobs [in the U.S.]. Engineers create jobs. Scientists like marine biologists, particle physicists, and astronomers [typically] don't."

Tim Besecker at R&D Magazine Blogs offers another perspective from employers:

What about the qualification question? Some companies report that supply is there, but the quality of the workers has declined. According to Lowell, the data doesn’t reflect the feared dropoff in quality. Ultimately, he and Salzman say, there’s a difference between a hiring problem and a shortage. It has more to do with job content, pedagogy, and skill set. It’s not the technical skills that is causing the concern, it’s the soft skills, the ability to communicate.

Ultimately, the takeaway may be how America has fundamentally changed its workplace mentality. Effective communication skills are almost required today, and this places great demands on workers who were, first and foremost, trained to be scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Not communicators.

Part of the problem may come from shifting definitions of technology workers.  From L'Atelier:

The problems that companies in traditional STEM firms have in recruiting top students is that they cannot offer what companies outside the traditional STEM definition can in terms of pay, benefits, stability and prestige.

Perhaps the problem is not that these students are truly leave the field, but that what constitutes a STEM job has radically changed in the last ten years. Does the engineering student who does SEO optimization for an internet marketing company count as being a technology worker?

Kate Oczypok at College News offers this take:

Did you ever see Little Miss Sunshine?  Well, one of my favorite lines in it is: Do what you love and f*ck the rest.  This article made me think about that, and made me happy with my career choice. If you’re into math and science, you should do it, and continue to pursue it. I don’t know, I’ve always thought chasing the dollar gets you in trouble. Regardless, the most important thing is to do what you love.

I wish the study had considered gender in its analysis.  As it is, the word "gender" appears nowhere in the paper, and the word "women" appears only twice, both times in footnotes.  Yet study after study has concluded that gender is a significant factor complicating students' pursuit of courses, degrees, and careers in STEM fields.  As Glennda Chui points out on Symmetry Breaking, "for women in physics, the pipeline is a labyrinth"--and women in other STEM fields are navigating similar mazes.  Chui's post summarizes a talk by physicist Patricia Rankin, and she includes a list of recommended readings provided by Rankin--definitely check it out.

What are your thoughts?  Why are the top-performing students (and especially women) not pursuing careers in STEM fields?  If you studied the STEM disciplines in college, and you're not working in them today, what turned you away?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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