All Washington, DC is consumed now with using the events in Syria to re-enact some combination of “Wag the Dog” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but I prefer to discuss jobs.

I start from the assumption that reasonable investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can contribute to good STEM jobs as well as good jobs and good quality of life throughout the country. The path is not perfect, but “making stuff” from growing food to improving hospital gurneys is a pillar of our economy and our society.  “Making stuff” is a better enterprise for society than pushing paper through creative banking.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science who publish the journal Science have a specialized periodical Science Careers about the job market (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org). Recent articles present a science job market that is not so rosy as we might hear from universities, colleges, and our leaders in Washington, DC.

After the LHC, the Deluge

We heard lots of interesting news in the past few months about the search for the long-sought Higgs boson, what some called the ‘God Particle.’ The European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, runs the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and produced 327 master’s and Ph.D. theses last year.  “In contrast, the INSPIRE Web site, a database for particle physics, currently lists 124 postdocs worldwide in experimental high-energy physics, the sort of work LHC grads have trained for.” Postdocs are temporary positions of typically 1-3 years that were not required 30 years ago, but are required for new PhDs throughout most sciences now in their career path toward more long-term employment. One of the recent physics PhDs says what might come from any recent STEM graduate at any degree level “I think the senior people, they actually think that if you work very hard, you’ll make it, because they made it.”

The ‘S’ in STEM is Oversold

A report on the employment experience of college graduates in five U.S. states observed that employers are far more selective than we thought.  Some biology graduates are now paid less than English majors, a group that is historically very poorly paid. Chemistry majors make a bit more, but not as much as other STEM graduates such as engineers.

So, how do the professional societies view the situation?

Robert N. Charette writes in IEEE Spectrum, an important news periodical for electrical engineers and computer scientists, “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth: Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians.” “Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.”

The Government & Policy Department at Chemical & Engineering News from the American Chemical Society writes “Unemployment among U.S. scientists raises new doubts about the need for more foreign researchers.”

The Mathematical Association of American and the American Statistical Association are engaged in strong advocacy for training more students to pursue “careers” in mathematics and statistics. The American Statistical Association thinks the path to more jobs for statisticians is through Big Data.

The difference between the statements from the IEEE and American Chemical Association vs. the American Statistical Association and Mathematics Association of America is a combination of actual job market analysis compared to senior professionals worrying about the supply of students in their classes and maintaining cheap labor such as graduate students and postdocs. It is interesting that the statisticians who support Big Data (such as market surveillance and Hollywood analytical mistakes tend to view the market for statisticians by looking at the size of their classes instead of studying salaries that haven’t risen in a decade or other measures that better measure how truly desperate are the US corporations that keep chanting they cannot find enough qualified job applicants.

It is interesting to watch the current tragic spectacle about Syria where legislators and the mainstream media desperately ignore the calls and email messages from their constituents that run sometimes 100:1 against a new war in Syria because the public realizes that the discussion about chemical weapons is tragic, but also misdirection. We’ve just spent several months being misdirected about immigration reform because the topic of H-1B visas was carefully excluded from the news, while legitimately sympathetic stories about DREAMers and exploited workers who crossed the Arizona desert are used to distract us from the H-1B payload. It all gets messy.

Photo by Zach Inglis under Creative Commons license