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Knocking the S out of STEM

Oct. 29, 2013
Educators, industry leaders, and politicians have been saying for several years that the key to high-paying jobs is earning a degree in one of the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, or math. Wage data from unemployment insurance systems in three states — Texas, Colorado, and Virginia — reveal some facts on new graduates that counter this conventional wisdom. It seems those who earn science degrees don’t do as well as technical, engineering, or math grads when it comes to the bottom line, at least in the early part of their careers.

For example, graduates of two-year Texas schools with degrees in mechanical engineering started jobs earning an average of $32k, computer and IT majors earned $30k, but biology and chemistry grads average only $18k. Even sociology majors got larger paychecks, $21k.

The pay differences get more pronounced with four-year degrees. Mechanical engineers and computer and math grads in Texas did well, earning an average of $74k and $50k, respectively. Biology majors pulled in only $25k, about the same as an airport skycap, and chemistry majors didn’t earn much more. And chemistry and biology majors earn less than those with degrees in English, sociology, and psychology.

Some science defenders say science degrees don’t really start to pay off until after a few successful years in grad school. And many biology students, the most-popular science major, are aiming at medical school. But premed students are a little like high-school kids preparing to play college and pro football: few ever make it to the major-league payoffs.

So it seems like high-school kids who listen to the educators and guidance counselors touting STEM fields and jobs are being partially led astray. The law of supply and demand has not been repealed. The good news is that students graduating with in-demand degrees, such as mechanical or electrical engineering, command the most pay. And the downside is that newly hatched biology and chemists must be satisfied with lower salaries because they just aren’t needed as much.

This doesn’t mean kids who love biology or chemistry should avoid those majors; they just shouldn’t think their degree will be a passport to larger salaries. The facts do seem to indict educators and others blindly pushing STEM degrees who don’t make this distinction. The cynic in me tends to believe these people, most likely employers of STEM grads, are trying to lower the wages of U. S. scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences might be dumbed-down STEM programs and dumbed-down American scientists and engineers.

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