we’re all chumps now, pharmacist edition

I’ve been banging on against the STEM shortage myth for a long time now, but this is only part of a broader argument. We’re living in an age where a lot of chin-scratching econ types a) blame people for their own unemployment on the theory that what they studied is frivolous/impractical/whatever, and b) push them to pursue “practical” degrees in fields like computer science, despite a typical lack of evidence that these fields actually ensure better employment and income outcomes. These arguments are almost exclusively delivered in an idiom of condescension and certainty, because of course there’s a shortage of computer scientists. (Actually, the latest numbers I’ve seen show an overall unemployment rate around 4% for those with bachelors degrees generally and up around 8% for those with computer science degrees.) And of course you can make a killing coding an app in your dorm room. (Actually, you almost certainly can’t.) And of course French poetry majors are to blame for the unemployment rate. (No, they aren’t.) But no one could have predicted. (We were seeing this dynamic before many current college students were born.)

Well: pity the pharm school grad. No, really. They deserve real human compassion, because like the American people in general, they’ve been sold a bill of goods. These kids were told again and again that pharmacy was a safe haven, that this was a growing field that could provide them with the good life for years to come. But as Katie Zavadski’s careful reporting shows, they were misled. The pharmacy labor market has been drying up, driving higher unemployment and lower wages. And really: of course, when you tell a generation of kids that a particular field is where the smart money is, you’re going to see a surplus. That’s how markets work! It’s bizarre to look at a supply-demand equation, propose to dramatically expand the supply, and expect to see the economic advantage remain. Every argument of the type “here’s the fields you should be pushing students into” is an argument to flood the market with graduates who are only going to be competing against each other for limited jobs. It’s a zero-sum vision that is endorsed as a long-term solution for societal economic health, and it makes no sense.

There is no such thing as practical knowledge, and so there is no such thing as a practical major. This country graduates 350,000 business majors a year. The metrics for those degrees are generally awful. But nobody ever includes them in their arguments about impractical majors, despite those bad numbers. And if you’re some 19 year old, out to choose a career path, business sure sounds practical. So they graduate with those degrees and flood the market with identical resumes and nobody will hire them. Meanwhile, they lost the opportunity to explore fields that they might have enjoyed, that might have deepened the information acquisition and evaluation skills that would allow them to adapt to a whole host of jobs, and that might have provided a civic and moral education. All to satisfy a vision of practicality that has no connection to replicable, reliable economic advantage.

What’s most depressing of all is that these changes of fortune for particular fields is always seen as worthy of mockery and not sympathy. I searched around for that New Republic article on social media and found plenty of people laughing at these kids and calling them chumps for following an educational fad. You just can’t win: if you pursue a field you actually like, they mock you for your impracticality. If you pursue a field out of a desire to chase the money, and you get unlucky, they mock you for choosing poorly. Whatever it takes to convince you that your unemployment is your own fault and not the fault of an economic system that serves only the 1%.

Read this missive from Casey Ark. Consider what his complaint is, and what it isn’t. Kid: you’re right. You were fooled. Bamboozled. Lied to. But the lie is so much bigger than the one you think you’re complaining about. Who told you that studying programming and business is more practical than studying English? And why did you believe them?

Chasing a particular employment market, for an individual, can be a good or a bad bet. But treating skill chasing as a long-term economic solution on the societal level is insane. We’ve responded to unprecedented labor market swings, and to our incredible exposure to risk through our financial system, by dramatically narrowing our notion of what skills are valuable and who gets to be considered a practically educated person. That makes zero sense, particularly in a time when automation threatens to cut the legs out from more and more workers as we move forward. We are manically pursuing a far narrower vision of what human beings can call a vocation, treating any endeavor that does not involve numbers or digital technology as useless and old-fashioned, with nothing resembling a sound evidentiary basis for believing that this will deliver better labor outcomes. (The numbers-based fields are the ones that computers will be best equipped to take over!) In a world where computers and robots will take over more and more work that was once performed by humans, we should broadening our notion of what constitutes valuable work, not shrinking it. And we should use our capacity for government-directed redistribution to share the efficiency and productivity gains of those computers and robots more widely. Instead, Google gets the money, you lose your job, and Tom Friedman makes millions telling you that it’s your own fault.

Petrochemical engineering is having a moment, in large measure because of the surprise discovery of new fossil fuel reserves. So: you want to tell an army of 18-year olds to start learning that stuff now? Even if they don’t like it? Even if they aren’t talented in that domain? You know, for that kind of job, you might need more than 4 years of school. You might need 6. You might need 12. Hope that labor market holds. Hope that bet pays off. But hey. If you’re one of the poobahs in the media telling these kids what to do, you’re not making that bet yourself.

24 Comments

  1. There’s a fun perception gap between what the mainstream media thinks of STEM subjects and what actual STEM people think of them, IMO. Anecdotally, computer science is regarded as one of the “lesser” STEMs, in terms of difficulty and degree pissing contests with STEM people. That’s not to say “they” don’t want programming as a skill, “they” just want it in addition to something concrete, like electrical engineering (probably too 20th century to be pimped in the media). But these skills can be picked up at intensive workshops that are at most only a few weeks long.

    1. (Full disclosure, somewhat defensive reaction of someone with a CS degree.)

      Could you provide a bit more documentation on those intensive multiweek courses to teach programming? I have friends that have done that sort of thing, but the sample size is pretty low and one of them is an extraordinary auto-didactic.

      If there’s humane and affordable way to teach the fundamentals in a relatively short time span, I might actually be able make the argument for paying for the training for some of my people. So it’s not just me being fairly dubious that your average smart person with a bachelors degree (to set some preconditions) can become even a full-fledged neophyte programmer within a few weeks.

      1. My mistake, I did not specify enough. When I said workshops, I meant “techniques to solve very specific problems in your subject” (EE, fluid dynamics, structural mechanics problems, that sort of thing), not to teach fundamentals of programming. There is an assumption that every STEM degree has taken at least a few computer science courses. I have no experience with the workshops in fundamental programing, so I can’t really say anything useful.

        1. Jane,

          Ah, yes that’s a straightforward reading of your original text, just not the one I went with. Allowing for a reasonably rate, I can see teaching people to use programming-based tools for their specific field in a short intensive period. Presumably they’d then have the opportunity to stay in practice, because of the focus, thus I could see it lasting.

          Thanks for the follow-up!

  2. Interesting article. My brother-in-law is actually a pharmacist so I’ve been hearing a bit about the field for a while.

    I think you might be conflating too problems a bit in your summary. The actual pharmacist market doesn’t appear to be drying up so much as not expanding as fast as expected. So there’s still part time work out there, and depending on how the regulatory issues shake out there may be more expansion in the future. The big question there is how much the local clinic model takes off, which could be a boon to registered nurses and pharmacists in a way that is actually a net benefit to the economy. While high end, medical care is a service industry and it’s not hard to see how wider availability of low-intensity services could result in better outcomes and take market share away from the often gross exploitation of emergency rooms.

    What stood out to me in the article was that many of these students seemed like they were getting grifted on tuition. This is particularly the case if they’re paying tuition for mandatory credits of rotations, which means you’re paying money to do a job. That ties together with the fact that we don’t have a good idea of what a solid pharmacy education covers. In the article, they were talking “x many years” but that can easily get into credential-ism and another way of separating students from their money. Also, I based on what we learned about law schools, I don’t think any of us would be shocked if some of the most expensive schools proved to be particularly shoddy.

    Suffice to say, I can buy that it’s time to start cancelling the building of new schools and do a better job of learning what makes a good pharmacist e.g. does students that put in those extra two years actually have better patient outcomes and lower error rates and the like.

    I think you’re right to issue a larger call to arms, but I suspect the most immediately addressable problem here is not a pharmacist glut but the need for essentially consumer protection for students, plowing money into state schools, and undercutting the perverse incentives in the federal student loan system for colleges to engage in grifting using whatever the flavor of the day is in majors. Whether people are pursuing their natural skill set or a place where they’re a reasonable match but they’d make more money, they’re all better off if they debt load is substantially lower.

    Obviously I might be wrong on this, the pharmacist unemployment rate may be higher than average in a few years (particularly if new schools keep cropping up) and pharmacists might be even worse off than I realized. But I think a first step is to work to prevent them and the students of the next big thing from taking on six digits of debt whenever possible (or I guess keeping it in the low sixes for the longer degrees). This will result in a decidedly level lower of service at fitness centers and the like, as you’ve previously discussed, and all the boom capital investments mean that this is a slow boat to turn, but that seems like the easiest symptom to address. That may sound naively confident, but it seems like the consumer protection case as actually been working in the field of law.

  3. (Actually, the latest numbers I’ve seen show an overall unemployment rate around 4% for those with bachelors degrees generally and up around 8% for those with computer science degrees.)

    Any chance you have a cite for this? The numbers I’m seeing don’t look anything like those. I’d be pleasantly surprised to hear that the B.S. rate is down to 4% (I’m seeing 6%ish), while the 8% for CS grads is double what I’ve seen in recent reports. (The data this Atlantic piece points to is from 2009-2010, which I would argue is unfair to cite in an article in 2014 given how much more recent data is available.)

    1. (Disclaimer: STEM grad, work as a software developer, still think the “STEM shortage” is bullshit.)

  4. As an out of work Ph.D./Post-Doc level medicinal chemist with 15+ years of real world pharma experience, I can tell you that there is a large surplus of chemists compared to jobs.

    I survived about 9 rounds of layoffs since about 2003 when the pharma market started out-sourcing and off-shoring and watched about 3/4 of my friends loose multiple jobs and become long-term unemployed (not counted in labor stats.) or perma-temps and bounce from job to job at low-pay and few to no benefits. Well, the job reaper finally caught up to me.

    Still, I see the people saying we need more STEM scientists and the goverment reports that the chemistry market has “slow growth” (not conceeding negative growth).

    Supply does NOT generate demand, even if the government would like there to be more STEM employment in the US.

    1. ” out-sourcing and off-shoring’

      Not to mention bringing in cheap scab labor in the form of HB-1s. Though that’s probably more in IT.

  5. Could you provide a cite for this claim: “This country graduates 350,000 business majors a year. The metrics for those degrees are generally awful. But nobody ever includes them in their arguments about impractical majors, despite those bad numbers.” What metrics do you mean? Thanks!

  6. I’m not sure what the point of this is. Do you really think that those with engineering degrees are less employable than those with English degrees? The evidence doesn’t seem to support that, and your assertion in the first paragraph is conspicuously un-linked.

    As to no one including business majors in those that made poor decisions, hey look, the third article in a Google search for “unemployment business major”:

    http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-07-10/college-graduates-who-majored-in-most-tech-fields-and-health-care-during-the-recession-had-better-outcomes-than-business-students

    There’s nothing unreasonable about directing students who are open to it to fields in which they’re likely to be successful.

    As to Casey Ark’s missive, Information Systems is a terrible major for unemployment because it swaps out STEM elements for business classes, which you deride in this very article!

    1. “There’s nothing unreasonable about directing students who are open to it to fields in which they’re likely to be successful.”

      The point is they’re not as likely to be successful as they’re told.

      1. I suspect some of this is because students are entering these fields (based on the idea that they’re more practical) who are not, in fact, cut out for them. Simply getting the degree isn’t a ticket to success,. If you try your damnedest and still only barely pass all your core degree classes then you would likely have been better served by a different area of study. For some students the most “practical” degree is not going to be Computer Science or Electrical Engineering. And that’s fine.

        I wonder, too, whether every cohort of recent graduates (by degree) will necessarily contain some baseline number of members who are almost unemployable. The unmotivated guys and gals who eked by and barely graduated. Who, in fact, don’t really know much about the field in which they got their degree. If you’re that sort of student (i.e. going to barely get by) then you face an uphill battle regardless of which degree program you choose. If you’re not that type of student then, most likely, you’ll be able to find a job when you graduate. Given that as a precondition the “practicality” equation shifts to compensation.

        Another thing I’m curious about is whether some of the unemployment among recent C.S. graduates might be due to a lack of willingness to relocate. The market for software jobs is much more concentrated in a few geographic locales than, say, the market for elementary school teachers. If you’re trying to find a dev. job in Waco, TX then yeah, it’s going to be tough. If you’re willing to live in any of the major tech hubs then you have a much larger surface area of employers that might be willing to employ you.

    2. The point is what I said it was in the post. Asking “do you really think…” is never an argument. I don’t claim that there is no evidence for systematically superior economic performance for engineering majors than for English majors, but

      a) you’ve provided no evidence on your own, relying on an ambient, unproven understanding of such an advantage in exactly the way I’m complaining about
      b) as such, there is no sense of degree, variability, or reliability in those numbers
      c) your perception is almost certainly colored by elite performance at the top, rather than by the performance of average students at average schools, which is what matters
      d) life satisfaction is about much more than income and unemployment rate
      e) the notion of English as a field with poor economic outcomes is unproven, and in fact, humanities majors in general do better than people assume, especially when placed in context with the huge number of students who take majors like business and education
      f) the entire purpose of this post is to ask whether pushing more and more students into certain fields makes societal sense, and draws from an example of where we did exactly that with one field and had perverse results.

      The fact that you can find a single article by doing a Google search is not at all an argument that there is no cultural definition of practicality that most students will assume includes the business major.

  7. I would also be intrested in seeing stats for computer science. One factor may be that computer science is vaguer than electrical engineering. There are a lot of what are basically computer mechanic courses offered by for profit universities and i would guess that their employability after is terrible.

  8. Unemployment by educational attainment (highest degree awarded):

    http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

    For Bachelors’ degrees it’s 4.0%.

    This paper from 2013 has stats on unemployment rate by college degree for recent graduates:

    https://www.cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Unemployment_Final_update1.pdf

    Stars on page 9. Without crunching the numbers, C.S. (7.8%) looks like it’s middle of the pack. Some degrees with lower unemployment for recent graduates: Finance (6.6%), Mathematics (6.1%), Elementary Education (4.8%), Electrical Engineering (7.3%), Nursing (4.0%), Social Work (6.6%), Chemistry (6.6%).

    In terms of judging the “practicality” of a degree, though, you really need to consider things like earnings. Also, this whole analysis is confounded by the fact that many students who earn Bachelor’s degrees in the humanities go on to graduate school, law school, etc.

  9. This topic is always one that I find somewhat amusing and sad. Amusing because selecting a major with the idea of gainful employment is pretty much a crap shoot, and sad because having a choice is such a gift but by using questionable criteria other than whether or not you are actually engaged with your major leads people down a path towards eventual dissatisfaction and wondering “how the hell did I end up here”.

    I’m actually (currently) an IT worker, with a BA in Communications and and MBA. Neither of those had anything to do with IT, and I didn’t work in IT until after 16 years of doing other things.

    However both degree programs were interesting to me at the time, both helped me refine my career path, and they prepared me to work in IT. Not by teaching me technical skills, but by broadening my mind, giving deeper insights, and showing me more of the “big picture”.

    I have a son who doesn’t know what he wants to do “for the rest of his life”, and hasn’t yet selected a major. My advice to him is to pick something interesting. It will teach him something, help him onward in the journey, and provide him future opportunities to explore further. He won’t starve.

    Thinking a degree will guarantee you a job or future employment is ridiculous and a fallacy (unfortunately) that many college age people assume. Sure, you can tilt the odds in your favor some, but if you don’t like the subject, you’re never going to be successful or satisfied. And, I don’t want to hire you.

    Since I’m older, I have a bit of hindsight and I can remember my assumptions when I was younger. Nearly every one of them were wrong, except that getting a University education was going to lead to future success. It has, but on its own timeline.

    My advice (for what it’s worth) is to make choices that keep you engaged. Be curious and enthusiastic. Those qualities will be noticed and valued by potential employers. You’ll be happier, more productive, and ready to take advantage of whatever else comes your way.

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