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The Myth of STEM Jobs


CO-PI Perspectives: The Myth of STEM Jobs

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields play a direct role in driving economic growth. Unfortunately, as STEM is increasingly heralded as the pathway to success in the job market, the message is often misleading.  It is time to differentiate myth from reality regarding STEM jobs in today’s economy.  Evidence is mounting that all STEM degrees do not guarantee employment or lucrative jobs.  As a 2013 Brookings Institution report pointed out, workers with less than a four-year degree are often overlooked in today’s STEM economy through use of an “excessively professional” definition of STEM jobs. Two-year degree programs in advanced technologies that drive our nation’s economy lead to a multitude of well-paying jobs in today’s industry. Graduates from these programs have substantial STEM skills with less than a bachelor’s degree.

153379569I raised this point recently in a roundtable discussion with the US Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker hosted by the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development. As one industry representative after another lamented the shortage of qualified workers for their increasingly technical jobs, the disconnection between the educational pathways students choose and available jobs was apparent. To ensure employment in STEM disciplines, students must pursue high-demand STEM degrees, not just any STEM degree.  Baccalaureate degrees in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics provide the essential background for pursuit of graduate degrees; but, with only a baccalaureate degree, do not often or directly lead to jobs or to jobs that pay well. Students interested in these disciplines need to know that they can actually enter the job market sooner and have excellent career options offering lucrative employment by choosing applied science and technology-rich programs offered by technical and community colleges.

For example, there are two-year degrees in biotechnology for biology enthusiasts, photonics and laser technology for those who love physics, geospatial technology for students fascinated by Google maps, and chemical technology, water quality management, or energy technology for those who like chemistry. Secretary Penny Pritzker agreed, stating that “…we need to ensure that training is tied to open jobs in a local area so that we do not promote unattainable STEM occupations to our youth.”


“…we need to ensure that training is tied to open jobs in a local area so that we do not promote unattainable STEM occupations to our youth.”

– U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker

In a September 25, 2013 Washington Post article, Jay Matthews exposed “a flaw in the STEM movement.” He reports studies showing that graduates with degrees in biology often earn less than English majors, and graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics. He points out that “perhaps science will give you personal happiness, but it’s not going to pay you a lot of money.” And, I might add, it takes more time and money to get to what may end up be a disappointing endpoint as a wage earner.

In contrast, jobs in applied science and technology available to two-year college graduates offer attractive pay with career advancement options. It isn’t unusual for technicians to start at $40,000 and quickly begin earning $60,000 or more per year.  In some specialty areas, highly skilled technicians can earn more than $100,000/year.  In addition, students can often earn while they learn through paid internships or apprentice opportunities.  One example is the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) internship program at Florence-Darlington Technical College that places engineering, industrial, and computer technology students in year-round, paid internships that are coordinated with their academic schedule, contributing to the “workplace readiness” of graduates and setting the stage for full time employment.  These graduates also have options for continuing their education, now or later, opening up additional career avenues for advancement.

Many advanced technology jobs have proven amazingly durable as well.  Even during the depths of the recent economic recession in our region, industry demand for technicians with knowledge and skills in engineering technologies, industrial technologies, and computer technologies never waned. There may be no such thing as a recession-proof job, but these career paths certainly come close.

Attributes, experiences, and differences among individuals ensure that there will always be exceptions to myth-busting data about STEM jobs, but as we strengthen our career counseling initiatives in South Carolina to support our state’s new and expanding industries, we need to counteract the myth about STEM jobs with more of the truth.  The reality is that there is a greater demand for highly skilled technicians than for most other STEM jobs. Our students deserve to know the real facts and about the breadth of diverse opportunities in STEM in South Carolina and beyond, so that they can make better education and career choices that will align with industry needs, job demand, and lucrative jobs.
Elaine L. Craft
Director, SC ATE Center of Excellence
Florence-Darlington Technical College


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