Domestic, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, K-12, Math, Opinion, Required, Science, STEM, Universities & Colleges - Written by on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 6:00 - 3 Comments

Columnist Diane Ravitch: Why Are So Many STEM Graduates Unemployed?

By Diane Ravitch, Guest Columnist

How many times have we heard the President, the Secretary of Education, and leaders of corporate America tell us that we must produce more scientists? That there are thousands of jobs unfilled because we don’t have qualified college graduates to fill them? That our future depends on pumping billions into STEM education?

I always believe them. Science, engineering, technology and mathematics are fields critical for the future.

But why then, according to an article in the Washington Post, are well-educated scientists unable to find jobs?

Three years ago, USA Today reported  high unemployment among scientists and engineers.

Some experts in science say there is no shortage of scientists, but there is a shortage of good jobs for scientists.

Some say that the pool of qualified graduates in science and engineering is “several times larger” than the pool of jobs available for them. And here is a shocker: The quality of STEM education has NOT declined:

Despite this nearly universal support for upgrading science and math education, our review of the data leads us to conclude that, while the educational pipeline would benefit from improvements, it is not as dysfunctional as believed. Today’s American high school students actually test as well or better than students two decades ago. Further, today’s students take more science and math classes, and a large number of students with strong science and math backgrounds graduate from U.S. high schools and start college in S&E fields of study. 

Why don’t our leaders tell us the truth? Why don’t they tell us that many of our highly trained young people will not find good jobs in research labs or universities or anywhere else?

I have said before on this blog that the economy is changing in ways that no one understands, least of all me.

Over the past century, whenever reformers told the schools to prepare students for this career or that vocation, the policymakers and school leaders were woefully inadequate at predicting which jobs would be available ten years later. When the automobile was first invented, there were still plenty of students taking courses to prepare them to be blacksmiths. The same story could be repeated over the years. We are not good at prognosticating.

My own predilection is to believe that all young people should get a full and rounded general education, which will teach them to think and evaluate new information. I prefer an education that includes the usual range of disciplines, not because of tradition but because each of them is valuable for our lives.

We don’t know what the future will bring, but we all need to learn the skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. We don’t know what jobs will be available in ten or twenty years, but we all need to study history, so that we possess knowledge of our society and others; we need an understanding of science so we know how the world works; we need to be involved in the arts, because it is an expression of the human spirit and enables us to think deeply about ourselves and our world. I could make the same claims for other disciplines. The claim must be based on enduring needs, not the needs of the job market, because the only certainty is that the  job market will be different in the future.

Ravitch is a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University. This post first appeared on


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Idit Harel Caperton
Jul 30, 2012 17:58

Whether or not there is a glut of top-level scientists, there is a critical shortage of people with the STEM-and-Computing-based skills that are required for even basic entry-level jobs in the not too distant future. In fact, the Labor Department has said that 3.6 million jobs are going unfilled right now precisely because of the paucity of just those skills—coding, computational design, computer programming, networked learning and team work. These skills, by the way, are not just technical; as the underlying “language” of online video and videogames, they have become the means of learning anything and creative expression for today’s generation, young and old—in effect, it is the new literacy. Moreover, the best way to obtain that “full and rounded general education, which will teach them to think and evaluate new information” that Ravitch describes as the ideal, nothing “works” better than learning how to code alone and with a team; it teaches the new reading and writing, mathematics, critical analysis, problem-solving, digital collaboration and teamwork that increasingly define the workplace—certainly the academic and professional workplace today’s students will need to prepare for.

Erich C. Blossey
Jul 30, 2012 20:42

Too Many Science Majors? Many news reports and commentators make the statement that we have too many science majors in the U.S. and offer as evidence the statement that “only one in three with degrees in science are really working in science-related job” [Is American Science in Decline? Xie, Yu, and Alexandra A. Killewald, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012]. It turns out that the actual number employed in science field is between 50 and 67 %. The error occurs by including social science majors and this group represents approximately 50% of the total comparison body. Contributing to the illusion is a variation in the total body of science or STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) field due to variation in the college attendance rate. For example, in 1997 there was a twenty percent decline in numbers in college compared to 1980. That decrease would tend to increase the demand for scientists in the market around 1998-2003, since there were a smaller number of total graduates available. This decline then reversed in the period from 1997 to 2010, increasing by 19.5%. This might be reflected in the larger number of science majors with degrees available in the market currently.
A greater factor in more scientist and science-related majors unemployed now relates to economic factors. The Great Recession (2008) caused many companies to either layoff or not make new hires in the science area. Example of this is the pharmaceutical industry that has made major retrenchment in recent times. Over the past four years, most large pharmas have made a very deliberate decision to reduce the scientific workforce or remove most in the research area of their companies, including Pfizer, Merck, Eli Lilly, and others. Statements were made by the drug companies to the effect that they were partnering with universities, with the expectation that the latter would be doing a majority of the basic and fundamental research. The pharmas would and do grant to principal investigators and departments hefty sums. The drug companies would then maintain their development departments for the exploration of pre-clinical and clinical trails and associated explorations. The number of research scientists let go has been in the tens of thousands. With decline in support of research at the state universities due to budget cuts, these former pharmaceutical scientists would have had little opportunity to secure jobs in academe.
The drug industry example above is but one in the post-Great Recession era. The fear and lack of positive foresight for future development in other industries has affected the labor pool of scientists, like the end of the major portion of the NASA program where thousands of engineers were let go. It is unfortunate that this negative outlook pervades the labor market for everyone. That pertaining to science and engineering is even more detrimental since IF the U. S. is to pull out of this decline/recession, we will have to do so in industries that are highly technical and innovative. That will require a labor force of the STEM variety. Yes, icing-on-the-cake would be if these science-math-engineering majors also have a strong background in the liberal arts.

Aug 9, 2012 17:06

I think the problem is technology industries want low experience low salary technology employees. The largest or close to largest technology firms in the Dallas area pushed out most of their over 50 employees around Christmas time, and simultaneously wrote editorials for more technology people. They did not want to give the older people raises.

I think this is the reason for the conflicting stories.

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