STEM: Too Much or Not Enough?

-November 08, 2013

Around the time I graduated college, starting salaries for engineering graduates were climbing rapidly. My first raise was a whopping 13 percent, so I could be making slightly more than the next year's crop of EE graduates.

Ray Stata, then president of Analog Devices (that first employer) and president of the Massachusetts High-Technology Council, was quoted as saying there aren't enough engineers to fill the available jobs.

We hear the same call from time to time: the US will fall behind if we don’t graduate more STEM (science, technology engineering, engineering, and math) graduates. Every time, though, the economy falters and many engineers and scientists are thrown out of work. A recent article in IEEE Spectrum, "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth," drew hundreds of comments by the time my print edition arrived.

Author Robert Charette quotes CEO after CEO claiming an engineering shortage, all the way back to 1934. That's during the Depression! Could there have been a shortage of any kind of worker at that time? Charette goes on the point to the causes of these shortage claims, starting in the 1950s when the Soviet Union took the lead in the space race and the US wasn't graduating enough people with technical degrees. In the 1970s it was Japan, and now it's China.

Charette claims that he hears the same cries of shortages in India and China, but he argues that the numbers tell a different story. He says part of the issue is that many people with STEM degrees move out of STEM jobs, sometimes because they can't get another STEM job after losing one.

The nature of STEM work has also changed dramatically in the past several decades. In engineering, for instance, your job is no longer linked to a company but to a funded project. Long-term employment with a single company has been replaced by a series of de facto temporary positions that can quickly end when a project ends or the market shifts. To be sure, engineers in the 1950s were sometimes laid off during recessions, but they expected to be hired back when the economy picked up. That rarely happens today. And unlike in decades past, employers seldom offer generous education and training benefits to engineers to keep them current, so out-of-work engineers find they quickly become technologically obsolete.

In September, Intel announced that it was closing its Hudson, Mass., semiconductor fab. Over 700 jobs, mostly in manufacturing, will be lost. Intel's reason for shutting down the fab was that it's too old to make today's chips and would cost too much to upgrade from 200mm wafers to 300mm wafers. The plant, originally built by DEC, was to produce the infamous Alpha processor.

I recently met a signal integrity engineer who works for Intel in Hudson while at a local IEEE EMC Society meeting. He, along with another 850, will keep their jobs in an adjacent R&D facility.

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