For 74 percent, STEM degrees lead to non-STEM jobs

Census data provides detail about computer-related employment, and raises questions about whether there is a U.S. shortage of STEM workers

The truth, when it comes to computer employment data, is almost always ugly.

For instance, among those with college degrees in computer-related occupations, men are paid more than women ($90,354 vs. $78,859 on average), and African American workers are more likely to be unemployed than a white or Asian worker.

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The unemployment rate among "computer workers" with at least a bachelor's degree was 2.6 percent for people categorized as white, and 5.3 percent as black or African American, according to U.S. Census data.

Men also make up about 75 percent of all computer workers.

These data points are from a U.S. Census Bureau report released earlier this month on what happens to people who receive STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, degrees in college. The report, based on 2012 American Community Survey data, found many well-paid and educated workers who, despite holding a STEM degree, do not have a job in one of those fields.

The Census Bureau reports that only 26 percent of people with any type of four-year STEM degree are working in a STEM field. For those with a degree specifically in computer, math or statistics, the figure is 49 percent, nearly the same for engineering degrees.

What happens to the other STEM trained workers? They aren't stocking shelves at Walmart. The largest numbers are managers at non-STEM businesses (22.5 percent), or having careers in education (17.7 percent), business/finance (13.2 percent) and office support (11.5 percent).

But the report's overarching finding -- that 74 percent of those who have a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, are not employed in STEM occupations -- comes with an unmentioned political question that may be the ugliest of them all: Is there a shortage of STEM-trained workers or not?

In terms of oversupply, an Economic Policy Institute study last year found that for STEM graduates, the supply exceeds the number hired each year by nearly two to one, depending on field of study. In engineering, colleges historically produce about 50 percent more graduates than are hired into engineering jobs, the study found.

One of study's authors, Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, said the Census findings are consistent with the EPI study.

"The unemployment in STEM is low now, but wage growth in most STEM occupations has been pretty flat for many years and employment growth has only recently shown any bounce," said Lowell.

Most STEM educated workers "in non-STEM jobs are simply not utilizing the skills they were trained to use," said Lowell.

Jonathan T. Rothwell, a fellow at The Brookings Institution, doesn't believe that the Census study captures the role that STEM-trained workers play. Many STEM majors end up working in some kind of managerial capacity, "and that's the natural outgrowth of success in their field."

Rothwell points out that Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, would both be classified as non-STEM managers by the Census, even though both are STEM-trained. While STEM-specific managers such as CIOs would be included as STEM occupations, CEOs would not.

Rothwell doesn't believe that there is an oversupply of STEM workers, and argues that there are shortages in some areas, and criticizes the Census data as too narrow.

Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at the Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the Census report adds another source of "compelling evidence" that "there is no credible evidence of generalized shortages in the STEM workforce."

Even in the industries from which the most vocal shortage claims come -- the computer, math and statistics areas -- "the Census Bureau report concludes that only about one-half of bachelors' graduates in these fields actually are employed in STEM occupations," he said.

Within this, Teitelbaum said "some specific occupations, at specific points in time, in specific geographic areas, are having more-than-average difficulty in recruitment -- but that is always the case in labor markets." His recent book, Falling Behind, Boom Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, (Princeton, 2014), finds a history of industry calls for more STEM workers that leads to an oversupply.

Stan Sorscher, labor representative at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a union representing over 24,000 scientists, engineers, and other professional employees in the aerospace industry, said there are three factors that discourage long-term STEM careers.

The first is age discrimination, particularly in software occupations. Second is the number of contingent positions and third is the use of foreign workers holding H-1Bvisas, who tend to take entry-level or near entry level jobs making it difficult for those who want to start out in the field, he said.

Sorscher, who has a Ph.D in physics, said that said that STEM careers are "osmotic," in the sense that almost any career path out of STEM is one-way.

"You may have many career options from a STEM job, but it's very difficult to change jobs into a STEM occupation." Any time not in the field is career limiting, he explained.

"Each time an employer announces layoffs or offshores work, in the turmoil, a certain fraction of the STEM workforce will move into other occupations," Sorscher added.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds: articles and blogs.

Read more about IT careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

This story, "For 74 percent, STEM degrees lead to non-STEM jobs" was originally published by Computerworld.

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