Education Opinion

The Same Old STEM Complaint

By Walt Gardner — October 24, 2012 1 min read
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Repeating something often enough does not make it true. But don’t try telling that to corporate executives. The latest example is an attempt by Brad Smith, the executive vice president and general counsel of Microsoft, to convince readers that there are some 3,400 open jobs at Microsoft for engineers, software developers and researchers that can’t be filled because schools are not turning out enough workers with the necessary skills (“How to Reduce America’s Talent Deficit,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19).

Smith says that other companies face the same problem. As a result, he advocates a national Race to the Future to address the issue. But nowhere in his proposal does he mention the No. 1 reason for the mismatch: low pay. (Full disclosure: I own 1,000 shares of Microsoft.) In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Stuart Firestein, chairman of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University, said it best: “For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it” (“Giving Up on Math and Science Careers,” Nov. 7, 2011).

That’s precisely why U.S. colleges and universities, which are turning out as many STEM degree holders as ever, find their graduates taking jobs in finance and consulting. Who can blame them? Why devote four years or more to a grinding course of study to take a job in a field that pays so poorly? In “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students Through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell conclude that there is a surplus of talent. “Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-STEM job because it pays better, offers a more stable professional career, and/or is perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies.”

It’s interesting to note that Smith never once mentions the Salzman-Lowell report, which was conducted with funding by the respected Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on science education. That’s because it’s much easier to scapegoat schools than to admit that top executives of high tech firms like Microsoft continue to receive bloated salaries despite their lackluster performance for shareholders.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.