Danielle Kurtzleben reflects on the myth of the STEM shortage and its analytic problems:
[I]t’s not necessarily that there aren’t enough science and math scholars out there; it’s that there aren’t enough people out there with the particular skills the job market needs right now. Spending four years doing biology experiments is no guarantee for a job, and indeed might not go as far as a couple semesters of statistics or computer science….
There’s a key distinction to be made here: this doesn’t necessarily say that there is or isn’t a shortage of STEM workers — rather, it might say that there’s a shortage of business workers with sufficient STEM skills.
“If you’re an anthropology major and you want to get a marketing job, well, guess what? The toughest marketing jobs to fill require SQL skills,” Sigelman says. “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].” Likewise, some legal occupations (such as intellectual property law) and maintenance and repair jobs stay open for long periods of time, according to the Brookings report, if they require particular STEM skills.
Perhaps. Kurzleben seems to be a careful and smart writer who is genuinely committed to thinking these issues through without resorting to cliched, unsupported thinking. But it’s very frustrating that Kurtzleben, and essentially our entire elite policy media, doesn’t go a step further: trying to predict what particular set of discrete and limited skills will be useful in the future is a mug’s game. It’s a fundamentally risky way for an individual to behave, and for policy decisions that are supposed to be based on the most good for the most people, it’s incoherent strategy. Jobs in petrochemical engineering have been exploding, because of a largely-unpredictable boom in American fossil fuel reserves. Becoming a contracting engineer for a construction firm was a great idea in 1999, but by 2005, was a very risky proposition. Going to law school was the epitome of mercenary self-interest until, suddenly, it was the epitome of laughable, deluded foolishness. Teaching kids how to code Python now, when they’ll be hitting the job market 20 years from now, is ludicrous, especially in a world where there’s every reason to think that tech firms will continue to have very low employee to market cap ratios and where computers might take over the bulk of coding. Individuals can navigate the markets, if they’re smart, privileged, and lucky. But great masses of people never can. If you’re telling me that you know what every freshman should start studying in 2014 so that s/he can get a good job in 2019, I think you’re full of it.
Instead, we should return to the point of what education has always been about: to teach students skills, yes, but only as part of a larger, more important goal of teaching them soft skills, meta-skills, and habits of mind that enable them to adapt to an endlessly-changing labor market. If you teach a kid how to use a particular kind of database or programming language, you might get them employed for five years, maybe ten. But if you teach them how to think, how to acquire skills themselves, how to be critical interpreters of information, and how to exist as compassionate and ethical members of a democratic society, you may empower them to keep themselves employed for 40 years. We could stop mistaking education as the process of one person giving information to others and rediscover education as a process of mentoring and apprenticeship where teachers work closely with students to develop not just specific skills but a mind that’s capable of acquiring more skills, and of understanding how and why skills become valued in the first place, and of forming moral choices about how these decisions drive society.
Of course, if we do that, then we’re back to the ideals of a liberal arts education, and I’m afraid that embracing that long, illustrious tradition isn’t sexy in policy elite circles, and doesn’t sell books.
I’ve been writing about issues like this on this blog consistently now, because they’re an obsession of mine and because they’re deeply important for our society. I’ve written about how there is no STEM shortage generally, how there is no computer scientist shortage specifically, how the tech industry is profitable in large measure because it employs so few people relative to revenues, how humanities majors don’t underperform national averages, how you can’t possibly blame broad unemployment on people taking “impractical” majors, how we mistake the value of being a star in a field for the value of simply being in that field. As the data about specific questions like the farce of a STEM shortage becomes too obvious to ignore, the policy apparatus slowly evolves. What makes me worry is the possibility that the thought process will simply shift around a little bit, without confronting the actual central problem: a vast embrace of quantitative, scientific, and technology skills as the solution to all of our labor woes, under the false notion that those skills are more “futuristic” than broader ways of knowing and that they necessarily will result in better economic outcomes. That is essentially the calcified orthodoxy of our policy apparatus, and yet it has never been buttressed by much more than prejudice, assumption, and narrative. (And I say all of this as someone whose research is largely computerized and quantitative.)
And of course, admitting that we shouldn’t educate to provide specific and limited skill sets robs neoliberal media types of one of their favorite pastimes: blaming individuals for their own unemployment. “You’d be employed if you got a computer science degree instead of studying French poetry!” combines the preening moralism and the vague, useless embrace of “the future” that are so intrinsic to our media elites, as well as reflecting unquestioned assumptions that are wrong as often as they are right. The truth of the matter is that the world of work has undergone massive changes in a short period of time, that jobs were lost by the hundreds of thousands thanks to destructive and immoral behavior of financial elites, that our problems have been far more about a lack of aggregate demand and the merciless march of automation, and that individuals cannot fairly be blamed for their own precarity. The supposedly impractical Millennial theater major has been the butt of constant invective for years. But she’s not guilty; she’s merely a convenient receptacle of hate for a policy apparatus that has failed her and her generation by the millions. What’s needed is a redistributive public policy that shields people from the random vagaries of the job market, and a return to the definition of education as a public good that teaches our citizens not just how to make money, but how to think, how to be free, and how to live.