When it comes to choosing a career, it pays to discriminate. That’s a major message emerging from a new study of STEM majors in three states. It seems not all STEM jobs are created equal, at least if we take only their wages into account.
In a study of recent college graduates in three states, Mark Schneider finds that biology and chemistry majors are not paid well, even when compared with (gasp!) sociology majors. This finding prompts him to conclude that “the ‘S’ in STEM Is Overrated.” We think that weighty pronouncement rests on a pretty flimsy foundation, given that he only looked at early career wages in three states. There may still be more to that story than he is able to perceive.
Yet his study brings home an important point: STEM boosters and critics alike tend to treat STEM as something monolithic. Some STEM advocates leave the impression that, if you study anything in STEM, you’ll have their pick of high-paying jobs. Critics, by contrast, often latch on to a few struggling occupations as if they represented the entire STEM workforce. (Chemistry PhD’s have trouble finding jobs! There were lots of unemployed architects in the recession!)
The reality, of course, is that there is variation within STEM. In our own study of the demand for STEM workers during the recession, we found differences from one STEM occupation to the next. To quote our STEM Help Wanted report:
- Within Computer and Mathematical occupations, for example, there were about 1.4 computer programming job postings for every unemployed computer programmer, but more than four network and computer systems administration jobs for every unemployed network or computer systems administrator.
- Within Engineering, job postings outnumbered the unemployed by 1.3 to one in electronic and electrical engineering and by more than three to one in industrial, health and safety engineering. The situation in civil engineering appeared much worse, presumably because money for public works dried up during the recession: Unemployed civil engineers outnumbered civil engineering job postings by almost two to one.
Yet taken as a whole, STEM workers did quite well, even in tough times. There were almost two STEM job postings for every unemployed worker. Outside of STEM, there were about three and a half unemployed workers for every job posting.
If you’re in college, and you want to maximize you earnings potential, don’t assume that all STEM fields are alike. Do some research about specific occupations and make the choice that best suits your ambition.
But if you're still in K-12, and you want to have that full range of choices once you reach college, you would do well to get a very strong grounding in STEM.
Finally, don't forget that STEM careers offer rewards other than money.