Limits on Job Market for Scientists and STEM (and Why, in an Alternative Universe Not Consisting of Our Universities, You Should Also Study Humanities)

One common theme in the higher education-and-economy debates is that students would be better off skipping the “soft” subjects and going for STEM – “Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.”  In comments to some of my posts on higher education, commenters sometimes seem to endorse something close the idea that, since all advances in the standard of living come from innovation of one kind or another, and since innovation comes in large part from STEM fields, if you want to be employable, you should study these subjects.  The rest is noise. Put another way, you can be employed on the production or productivity side of things, producing value, or you can be employed as a transaction cost on production, or rent-seeking, or else in the production of entertainment and amusements, but ultimately the real and stable value lies in being on the employment side of innovation and production and that is most associated with STEM fields.  This is a crude caricature, but some version of this can be found lurking in the foundations of an awful lot of thinking about education, careers, and the economy.

There is also a fair amount of sensible pushback against this – including in many other comments to posts on these topics here at Volokh – particularly from people who work in these fields.  They point out correctly that it is not exactly true that STEM is a ticket to a decent job.  As many of our commenters have said, an awful lot of scientists in many physical science fields have serious difficulty finding jobs as scientists, let alone as formal academics at universities.  Even engineering is quite field specific at any given point in time, and the favored fields wax and wane – and, I always recall one Volokh commenter – and engineer – noting that it’s not really feasible to simply shift engineering fields with shifting job markets.  Civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering – these are all engineering, but all highly specialized and, in terms of credentials, career, keeping current in the field, not fields among which one can simply switch.

The Washington Post today has an important article confirming our commenters’ sense that scientists are far from being necessarily employed or even employable, just because they’re scientists.  Not surprisingly, their job prospects depend upon the rest of the economy; they are highly, highly specialized workers in a large global economy in which their particular skills depend upon zillions of other job functions, ranging from entrepreneurs as well as gigantic established corporations (e.g., drug companies who need life sciences scientists) to managers who can ensure that internal business processes actually result in products, marketing people who can get products to a buying public, finance people and even bankers who can deal with capital and – let’s not over estimate our capacities here – manage enterprise risks.  Being a STEM person does not ensure that one will have a job, because the technical jobs involved here depend on lots of other jobs and positions, most of which are not technical STEM fields.

This is obvious, of course, but I raise it because it seems to be missing in discussions of higher education and careers.  For most people – I would conjecture – STEM training over an entire career stretching decades is less about being a pure technical person than being someone who can engage with technical people, understand what is going on in a quantitative sense, and bridge between the technical worlds, management, sales and marketing, etc.  Anyone recall the Dilbert cartoons?  The ones that had Catbert or Dogbert (I think) whispering to Dilbert, “Come over the the dark side of management, your technical skills are stale and you can’t keep up with the newly minted technical people.”  Well, that’s not crazy; it’s normal, which is the joke.  But if one is going to be able to do that, it requires skills beyond narrow technical ones – reading and writing, to start with, and not just arithmetic.

Now, if I were writing for the National Endowment for the Humanities, I would next follow up with a pitch for studying the so-called soft subjects as well.  Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience do that, because so far as I can tell, the humanities, with notable exceptions at particular universities and with the general exception of philosophy, have punted on the analytic skills in the verbal areas.  They should have an important role to play in the well-educated person – even where that is narrowly defined in economic and career terms – but alas they don’t.  All this is a very large problem for outfitting students for finding jobs when they first get out of school, but also across the trajectory of a career.  It’s not enough to be able to do math; you also have to be able to think in a broader analytic sense, and engage those skills in a critical way in words.

If you haven’t yet bought Glenn Reynolds’ new, short essay, The Higher Education Bubble, I recommend it to students and parents, and to university administrations and professors.   I’ll post up my own review of it here at Volokh, because I think it is one of the most important calls-to-action on the crucial interlink between education, career, and economy that has appeared since the financial crisis forced us to awareness of the higher education debt crisis.

In the meantime, however, I want to use this Washington Post article to focus awareness on that fact that even STEM areas are part of a specialized, division of labor economy, and that the range of jobs and careers in an economy and society as complex as ours is very large, constantly shifting, and even the apparent sources of innovation have to fit into a larger matrix of economic roles.  There can be overproduction of STEM, and parts of STEM, and in any case, STEM workers are often at the greatest long run risk of obsolescence as technical fields change, often as a function of shifting economic demand.