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.