Is There a Shortage of STEM Students and STEM professionals?

There are too few STEM students and workers, according to a significant majority of technologists whom IEEE Spectrum recently polled about employment in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. More than six out of ten said there weren’t enough STEM students and professionals, although respondents tended to view the situation as more dire in their own country than in the world at large.

The question was one of several posed to the IEEE Spectrum Forecasters, a panel of IEEE members and other engineering professionals whom we poll periodically about emerging technologies and related topics. Of the 470 people surveyed, 42 percent responded. (To dig deeper, you can download the full survey results [PDF]. And if you’re interested in becoming a Forecaster for future polls, please sign up.)

Written comments from respondents were revealing. “The US is definitely lacking in STEM students,” one person wrote. “Engineers should be as celebrated in magazines and newspapers as actors and other celebrities are.”

Another commenter considered the STEM crisis in terms of global development: “The need for STEM education is even more critical in under-developed and developing countries, in order to allow them to become independent of foreign aid programs. Developed countries should help more these countries/regions.”

One respondent said the sheer number of STEM students was sufficient but the education they’re receiving isn’t well-rounded: “With respect to education, I think there are enough people going through the curriculum, but not enough focus on quality,” the commenter wrote. “We are training scientists to get through job interviews, but there is not enough focus on things like writing skills and learning how to cooperate and give credit where it’s due.”

And a few commenters expressed the opinion that there is no shortage at all: “The UK government claims there is a shortage of people with STEM skills; but if that were really true then their wages would not be so dismally low,” one person wrote. “In Australia (where I used to live) the government has been bemoaning the skills shortage for years; but my experience is that there is not a shortage of highly skilled (e.g., Ph.D.) people in Australia, but merely a shortage of suitable jobs for them.”

Contributing editor Robert N. Charette came to a similar conclusion in his recent article “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth.” After a thoroughly review of the literature and interviews with a number of experts, he concluded that there is no shortage of STEM workers, but there is a shortage of STEM literacy. He writes:

“Many children born today are likely to live to be 100 and to have not just one distinct career but two or three by the time they retire at 80. Rather than spending our scarce resources on ending a mythical STEM shortage, we should figure out how to make all children literate in the sciences, technology, and the arts to give them the best foundation to pursue a career and then transition to new ones. And instead of continuing our current global obsession with STEM shortages, industry and government should focus on creating more STEM jobs that are enduring and satisfying as well.”

Tell us what you think: Should more students be pursuing STEM degrees? And are there enough STEM professionals, or do we need more? 

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