Does the Focus on “STEM” Miss the Bigger Picture?

July 10, 2014

Danielle Kurtzleben of Vox recently explored the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs shortage in America to get a better understanding of what the term, ‘STEM shortage’ means exactly. What she found was that the use of this term over-simplifies the problem and leads many to the mistaken conclusion that in order to fix the shortage, we just need to graduate more students with STEM degrees. Not so fast.

While there is, in fact, a shortage of workers in this country with advanced degrees in the STEM fields, there is also a shortage of workers with quantitative skills, which is having a dramatic effect on businesses across the country.

In a recent Brookings report on STEM job vacancies, the occupations that are toughest to fill are in healthcare, computers, and engineering, all of which require degrees in STEM. However, management and sales occupations are also high on the list because of the increasing importance that employers put on quantitative skills in their hires.

Matt Sigelman of Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm says, “I think what we're seeing is a widening of the scope of jobs that require a quantitative background.” He continues, "If you can ... along the peripheries of your academic program accrue some strong quantitative skills, you'll still have the advantage [in the job market]."

Kurtzleben provides some insight on how to tackle the crisis.

“Producing lots more college science graduates isn't necessarily going to solve the nation's STEM problems. The solution will have to be much more focused on exactly which skills — not which degrees — employers need.”

Since the term ‘STEM’ doesn’t measure quantitative skills, let’s make sure when talking about the ‘STEM shortage’ we clarify exactly what that means.  While we can acknowledge the shortage of advanced degree holders in the STEM fields, that only solves part of the problem.  If the U.S. is going to effectively address its shortage of all sorts of STEM workers, the policy discussion has to place added emphasis on the types of skills that American workers possess, not just the degrees that they have earned.


Mark D'Alessio is manager of communications for the USCCF's Center for Education and Workforce.