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Here's the big thing we get wrong when we talk about STEM

When it comes to problems in the labor market, America's business leaders and some politicians are absolutely sure of one thing: there's a serious shortage of science, technology, engineering, and math workers, and it means we need to shift our education and immigration policies. President Obama has helped lead the drumbeat of the need for better STEM education, and tech companies like Microsoft have advocated expanding the H-1B visa program to boost the number of STEM workers.

Then again, there is another side to the debate, this one composed of politicians and academics who are certain there's no real evidence of a shortage. Wages in STEM fields, for example, are not exactly skyrocketing, as Harvard Law School's Michael Teitelbaum has argued.

One key issue lost in the debate, however, is that calling it a STEM shortage suggests a simple problem with a simple solution: so there aren't enough workers in science and engineering? Simple: just get more people diplomas those fields.

But it's not necessarily that there aren't enough science and math scholars out there; it's that there aren't enough people out there with the particular skills the job market needs right now. Spending four years doing biology experiments is no guarantee for a job, and indeed might not go as far as a couple semesters of statistics or computer science.

The issue in part is that STEM is in many ways too broad a classification to describe the complicated job market right now.  A May 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office found that employment and wage outcomes could vary widely between healthcare STEM jobs, so-called "core STEM" jobs, and other STEM jobs.

"STEM makes no sense as a category. What you have is science and engineering, and then you have this IT labor force," says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. "It's a non-differentiated category that makes no analytic sense."

Lumping all STEM occupations together can therefore muddy the waters of studying the supposed STEM shortage. On the other hand, "STEM" can be a good way of categorizing skills, if not jobs, says one expert.

"Biologists and computers scientists are pretty far from one another, and it's not clear that grouping them together as STEM jobs is useful in itself," says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm that helped produce a recent Brookings report on STEM job vacancies. But the classification does have another use, he says: "STEM is a useful categorization when you start thinking about it as a range of skills to have in the job market."

One way of getting at this is to look at the types of jobs that are hardest to fill. Consider the categories at the top of Brookings' list of where the job openings are open the longest.

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Healthcare, computers, and architecture come out on top, but then business comes in. Management and sales occupations appear far tougher to fill than jobs in life, physical, and social sciences. If there's a shortage in all STEM fields, you wouldn't expect sales and management to beat out life sciences.

There's a key distinction to be made here: this doesn't necessarily say that there is or isn't a shortage of STEM workers — rather, it might say that there's a shortage of business workers with sufficient STEM skills.

"If you're an anthropology major and you want to get a marketing job, well, guess what? The toughest marketing jobs to fill require SQL skills," Sigelman says. "If you can ... along the peripheries of your academic program accrue some strong quantitative skills, you'll still have the advantage [in the job market]." Likewise, some legal occupations (such as intellectual property law) and maintenance and repair jobs stay open for long periods of time, according to the Brookings report, if they require particular STEM skills.

(All of this comes with the caveat that the above table doesn't look at wages. Many who believe there is no STEM shortage argue that those jobs that are hard to fill simply aren't raising their wages enough to attract more talent.)

Sigelman also notes that Burning Glass recently found the number of job openings for "analysts" of any kind had surpassed registered nurses. That RNs have been overtaken by this more business-focused occupation could be seen as a sign that the need for more advanced math skills is spreading into all sorts of occupations.

"I think what we're seeing is a widening of the scope of jobs that require a quantitative background," says Sigelman. "While at the same time actually the demand for jobs that are kind of oriented around the pure sciences may — I don't want to say it's dropping, but it's a smaller share of STEM jobs than it used to be."

In other words, producing lots more college science graduates isn't necessarily going to solve the nation's STEM problems. The solution will have to be much more focused on exactly which skills — not which degrees — employers need.

"Frankly, if you're talking about he jobs that a graduate of a chemistry or biology program can get without getting a Ph.D. or an M.D. aren't necessarily the best jobs out there," says Salzman. Likewise, he adds that even looking at "engineering" isn't useful — a petroleum engineer is going to have far different opportunities than a civil engineer.

Even a Ph.D. might not do much good. Another way of thinking about this is to look at how the most skilled people in all STEM fields are doing. If you broadly believe the idea that there is a STEM shortage, then the people with the most STEM skills should be in highest demand. In many cases, that doesn't appear to be true. As The Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann found last year, many Ph.D.-holders across STEM fields are faring poorly in the job market at graduation, though engineering scholars appear to have done a bit better than life sciences grads.

The other, more superficial issue in the STEM shortage debate is that changing technology means STEM skills in demand will constantly be changing. Brookings also picked apart how much different skills are worth. At the top are computer and math skills, which are worth $76,600 on average. Then again, there are a total of nearly 1,300 skills in that category.

That companies are willing to shell out lots of money for these skills (and spend a lot of time seeking them out) shows that there really is something like a shortage of these skills — and a big opportunity for people who master them. And there is ample evidence that America's students could get better at math. But characterizing these skill shortages as a broad STEM crisis is misleading to students, and has distorted the policy debate.

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