How to STEM Employment Concerns

Is It True That Jobs Are Being Eliminated by Increased Automation, or Is the Industry Sending Too Many of Our Jobs to China and India?

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Aaron HandBy Aaron Hand, Managing Editor

It's a common complaint in industry, and apparently no less so among engineers: Too many Western jobs are being lost to cheaper-labor bastions like China or India. Either that, or jobs are being eliminated by increased automation. And yet, at the same time, U.S. businesses frequently complain that they can't find enough people to fill the skilled technical positions that they need to.

Over the past couple issues, this column detailed some of the activities undertaken to help give our young ones an education in—and appreciation for—science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Many companies throughout our economy are desperate to ensure a supply of engineers to sustain their viability, and it's been interesting to see how many more similar stories continue to come to the fore.

According to new research from the U.S. Department of Commerce, growth in STEM jobs over the past 10 years has been three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs. So efforts continue to create the engineers to fill those positions. In a visit in June to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and North Carolina State University (NCSU), President Barack Obama and a council led by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke discussed, among other things, the role of technology in the U.S. economy, as well as engineering education. During his visit, Obama announced an initiative to train an additional 10,000 engineers to boost competitiveness.

Obama talked of promoting STEM education, inspiring students to finish their degrees, and helping universities to fund those programs. The education situation seems to be improving, however, rising from one-third to now half those students who start in engineering actually graduating with their degree, according to Louis Martin-Vega, dean of engineering at NCSU.

Such efforts, Obama said, will help the U.S. to compete against countries such as China and India for technological prowess. China and India are "cranking out" the STEM jobs, he said. "Those students are hungry because they understand if they get those skills they can find a good job, they can create companies, they can create businesses, create wealth."

Commenting on the latest initiatives of the Obama administration, James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, applauds the commitment to STEM education. "Our country's current and future economic prosperity and ability to innovate absolutely depend on a robust, high-quality STEM workforce," he says. "If we are to keep up with our global competitors, we must step up our nation's efforts to improve and encourage STEM education."

To help foster the incentive, enter the latest statistics from Locke and his team, profiling U.S. employment in STEM fields a month after Obama's announced initiative. Here are a few: In 2010, there were 7.6 million STEM workers in the U.S., or about 1 in 18 workers; STEM jobs are expected to grow 17% from 2008 to 2018, compared with less than 10% growth for non-STEM occupations; STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26% more than their non-STEM counterparts; STEM degree holders earn more, regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM jobs.

"A STEM education is a pathway to prosperity—not just for you as an individual but for America as a whole," says Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. "We need you in our classrooms, labs and key government agencies to help solve our biggest challenges, and that's why we are investing heavily to promote STEM education."

Despite the stats, I can't help but think of how hard hit some technology sectors have been by layoffs. In the semiconductor industry, for example, which is highly cyclical, engineers and technicians are laid off as the market tanks, then hired back as it booms again. During my time covering that industry, I had more than a few engineers tell me that they advise their own youngsters away from such careers, which they judge to be much too volatile to make a stable career of it.

Is that kind of volatility driving our youth away from STEM careers? Or is a typical STEM degree just too hard? Or is there some other disconnect? I'd love to hear your take on the situation. Email me at ahand@putman.net, or add your comments on our Machine Builder Forum at www.ControlDesign.com/STEM

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