Reader Feedback: STEM Jobs - A Career in Law?

Volatility of STEM Jobs. The Technical Ranks Within Company Are the First Ones to Get Cut in Tough Financial Times

In "How to STEM Employment Concerns" (August '11, www.ControlDesign.com/STEM0811), I think you hit the nail on the head (at least partly) with comments about the volatility of STEM jobs. In a lot of companies, the first place they look to cut when things get tough financially is in the technical ranks, because those positions pay the most.

Where I live (near Schaumburg, Ill.) is "Motorola country." I can't even begin to recount the number of people I know with high-level math skills who have had their careers turned upside down over the past 10 years. Motorola has a great history and has had a huge impact globally, especially with Mikel Harry and his team developing Six Sigma; but it has not succeeded in providing "quality" jobs for its STEM employees.

What U.S. employers really want is the availability of cheap STEM skills; i.e., they want new college grads because they cost less. Consider for a moment what it costs to live in an area where there is a significant high-tech infrastructure:

  • Typical housing runs $350K for a family of four. If you finance 80%, you carry a $280K mortgage. Assuming an interest rate of 6.5%, that's $18K a year just in interest. With the principal, figure $25K.
  • Groceries, clothes, utilities, etc. roughly equal housing cost. That's another $25K.
  • Property taxes on most homes in my neighborhood are now pushing $10K per year.
  • If you buy a car every six years and spend $30K on it, you have to lay away $6K a year to afford it. It's at least $3K a year to keep it on the road.
  • Add $5K annually to give to charity.
  • The two kids will cost $120K apiece to put through college in 15 years. Figure $16K annually has to be put away for their educations.
  • Social Security won't cover nearly what it does today, so the average person should put away at least $10K annually in their younger years, with hopes that they can catch up later.

So now we are up to $100K required to live the middle class lifestyle. To earn that, assuming a 35% tax rate (federal, state, social security, sales), the jobs have to pay at least $150K combined for the couple. Likely that means two working parents, which adds another $12K per child in daycare to the expenses. Now we are talking around $175K in combined income required to maintain a middle class lifestyle. That is more than $87K apiece.

I don't hear many employers itching to pay STEM grads $87K a year. They want to pay $45K-$50K a year. Now do you see why the bright kids are opting for law school?

John Tiessen, Global Materials & Applications Science,
Sun Chemical, www.sunchemical.com

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