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STEM Shortage?

By: , Posted on: April 23, 2018

My social media feeds are full of “STEM” promotion activity by well-meaning engineers, persuaded to address a supposed “STEM shortage” I see no real evidence for, and I see much evidence against.

Why anyone would need to promote “STEM” is a mystery to me, I was always fascinated by how things work, just like all real engineers. What use are reluctant engineers?

That aside, how can unemployment and underemployment of engineering graduates (and even highly experienced engineers) have been so high for so long if there is a STEM shortage? How come wages aren’t skyrocketing in the STEM disciplines? The answer is simple. There is no STEM shortage.

Oh, there are forecasts of shortages, just as there have been for decades.
But there is no STEM shortage.

There are complaints from employers that they cannot get a particular kind of “STEM” employee when they want them, where they want them, for the price they would like to pay. But there is no STEM shortage.

There are complaints from universities that they only have nine applicants for each place on Chemical Engineering courses. But there is no shortage of Chemical Engineers.

The most unhelpful concept here is that of “STEM” itself. It promotes the idea (popular amongst academics hungry for funding) that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics exist on a continuum, and are four kinds of the same thing (which they are not).

Some academics even expand STEM to STEMM (including medicine, and sometimes nursing), or at its extreme STEAM (including arts). Why? Because governments know that engineering and technology are important sources of jobs and revenue, so they fund them. Other, less practical disciplines simply want to ride the coat tails of “STEM” to government funding.

But even ignoring “STEMM” and “STEAM”, Science ,Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are quite different, as I have discussed before. Furthermore, to consider only engineering practitioners, (leaving aside for today the non-practitioners), we might split each discipline of the profession into graduate “technical” and non-graduate “craft” practitioners. There is such a thing as interdisciplinarity, but “STEM” does not describe it.

What the “STEM” concept covers up is the fact that most reported shortages of potential “STEM” employees are not of “STEM” graduates. They are of craftspersons. We need more plumbers – we do not need more forensic science grads.

Is it appropriate to respond to a temporary shortage of control panel wiremen willing to work for £8 per hour in a valley in South Wales by increasing the number of places on electrical engineering degree programmes with a view to producing more graduates in four or five years’ time? You think so? How about mathematics courses? In Germany?

Of course not, because there is no such thing as STEM. There are specific, non-interchangeable skillsets in each discipline, sub-discipline and sub-sub discipline. Ask one of the many still unemployed experienced chemical engineers laid off in the oil and gas industry who cannot get a job in the presently booming UK water sector if there is such a thing as STEM. They may not even be convinced that there is such a thing as chemical engineering.

There is of course a discipline of chemical engineering, and there really are generic cross-sector skills within that discipline, but with the glut of engineers caused by STEM promotion, employers have no incentive to help graduates to train or old hands to retrain. They want people who can do the job now, and they want them cheap. Why wouldn’t they? They are in the business of making money. But why would professional engineers want to help them to act in such a way?

The answer is our goodwill to the next generation. We wish the engineers who are to come well, and we want to help them. Sometimes our goodwill may be limited to just a subtype of engineers we identify with, but this is the main altruistic motivation of those I talk to. Our goodwill is being exploited by academia and big business to exploit in turn those who we wish to help.

I would call upon professional engineers to continue to help future engineers, but only in the most direct possible fashion. We should not provide our time for free to institutions who are charging students for the help we are providing unless we can control what is taught, again in the most direct way. We cannot trust our professional institutions to do this for us, as they have been taken over by academics.

It might be easier to just take on a graduate or an apprentice instead and make them into an engineer. Only engineers can make engineers, so it’s down to us.

We cannot however be responsible for taking on all of the massive glut of engineering grads being churned out worldwide. This is academia’s problem to solve, and they will not even see it as a problem until they see that STEM is a myth. We need fewer engineering grads, with more useful skills. Academia needs to recognise that with only 4% of engineering grads going into research, research is not on the list of useful skills.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering
Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

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