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STEM shortage: real; not real?

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By Peter Clarke


We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about the presumed shortage of students interested and skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The phrase “STEM shortage” gets repeated so often that it has become accepted as fact, with all sorts of dubious data called up to support it.

In many cases, the shortage is claimed to be geographic, with some regions of the world focused on STEM topics, while students in other areas are spending their time on feel-good majors and “XYZ studies.” The unfortunate joke is that they are really preparing for careers as baristas at Starbucks (not that there is anything wrong with that, of course). [I don’t think of barista as a person with a career, unless it is someone working in the British legal system, Ed.]

Nevertheless, it’s worth stepping back and asking: how real is the “shortage? Is it uniform or are there areas of both shortage and surplus? What’s a “shortage”, anyway?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Is There a STEM Crisis or a STEM Surplus?” explored the challenges of defining and assessing this STEM shortage, and to what extent it is real, if at all. The answers, in brief, fall along these lines: 1) it’s yes, no, and maybe; 2) it depends in which specific area; and 3) it depends on the technical level as well.

The article also cited a 2013 article in IEEE Spectrum, The STEM Crisis Is a Myth, which made a strong case that there is no overall shortage. Part of the problem is that the industry needs are often out of synch with and academic programs. If an area is “hot,” students flock to it, but by the time they have graduated and have some hands-on experience, that area may have cooled off considerably.

What really amazed me about the IEEE Spectrum article is the turnabout from their historical attitude. Several decades ago – and I am showing my age range here – an independent “gadfly” named Irwin Feerst and his “Committee of Concerned Electronic Engineers” ran a lonely and frustrating campaign against the IEEE’s incessant drum-beating that more engineering students were needed; see “The legacy of Irwin Feerst.” His point was that there was clearly no shortage because if there were engineering wages would rise and yet they had remained relatively flat. And secondly that the IEEE was biased. He argued that because the organization’s members were largely in academia, the IEEE leadership had a vested interest in proclaiming the “shortage” to help fill classroom seats and also getting more graduate students into the system as low-cost assistants. It could also be argued that IEEE leadership, where it was not academic resided high up within industry and had an interest in following the employers’ rather than employee’s interests.

The same “shortage or not” question certainly exists for the mystical art and science of analog design that includes power and RF design, as well. For years, I’ve heard the pleas that analog is not taught in school, students don’t know an op amp from a logic gate, and so on. Yet somehow, the analog vendors seem to have sufficient staff and resources to release many products ranging from basic building blocks to leading-edge amazing ones.

Somehow, the analog shortage (if there is one) is always overcome. Many of the analog companies I speak with have an internal mentoring program where they take candidates with suitable basic background (physics, math, materials) and teach them analog – and that seems to be working. Perhaps the mentoring/apprentice approach is better for some niches – and many STEM areas are niches – as long as the grasp of basics is there.

Of course, the unanswerable question is this: what’s the “right” number of STEM-related individuals that we need? No one knows, and predictions are meaningless. Look at photos of major engineering projects and companies in the 1960s and into the 1970s: you’ll see cavernous floors with row after row of engineers and draftsman at large drafting tables, doing schematics, mechanical design, and assembly drawings, while invisible “armies” struggled to maintain a drawing library, revision control, parts inventory, and the bill of materials. That’s all gone now, replaced by databases, CAD/CAM/simulation, and other tools. With these tools and a few clicks, one engineer can do what took dozens to accomplish “back in the day.”

Do we need more STEM education? I don’t know; and no one does. I do think that what we really need is more STEM appreciation, where students are exposed to basics of these disciplines. Those who have an aptitude or affinity for it may go on from there, but even those who don’t might at least have some appreciation of what it takes to create, invent, and produce, beyond just writing code at a keyboard. The article STEM Literacy and Jobs is a nicely balanced look at STEM as a career choice versus STEM-related literacy as a needed area of study.

The “maker” movement is a huge step in that direction, and I applaud what it has done. Perhaps the mainstream media will give eventually some high-visibility attention to STEM leaders and their accomplishments, rather than highlighting yet another celebrity of questionable talent but with a wardrobe issue or dramatic selfie? We can always hope, I guess.

What’s your view on the STEM “shortage?” What can or should be done about it, if anything?

Bill Schweber, is an electronics engineer and author who has written for EE Times, was analog editor at EDN and prior to that worked in marketing communications for Analog Devices and was also editor of its technical journal.

This article first appeared on EE Times’ Planet Analog website.

Related links and articles:

Gas discharge tubes: old protection in a new bottle

Book presents an analog wonderland

Volkswagen has given engineering a black eye


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