Vivek Haldar

STEM jobs

Via Daniel Lemire’s blog, I came across this three-part series of posts by John F. McGowan that uses job posting data to analyze the STEM job market.

  1. What is really hot in STEM jobs?
  2. The Catch-22 STEM job market
  3. What do STEM employers want?

The key results of this brief survey of the Craig’s List San Francisco Bay Area job board are: very few entry-level or junior STEM jobs are posted. Most STEM job posts claim to require 2-7 years, often 3-5 years, of work experience in specific skills such as programming languages such as MATLAB or C++ and toolkits such as OpenCV or OpenGL. Very few jobs requesting more than 10 years of experience are posted. There is little or no interest indicated in a range of mathematical skills taught in high school and college math including algebra and especially calculus.

STEM job posts with a high mathematical content are dominated by statistics and data analysis, primarily business data and some medical/healthcare data. Most machine learning, “big data”, and data scientist posts fall into the category of statistics and data analysis. There are remarkably few STEM jobs posts seeking to solve “big problems” such as alternative, cheaper energy sources, curing major diseases such as cancer, and the like. The few companies that arguably post “big problem” jobs are often backed by the government (e.g. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors and SpaceX) or may have special relationships with the government (e.g. Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace).

Many of these results contradict common claims and themes in general news media articles, think tank reports, and other sources about STEM education, STEM employment, and alleged shortages of STEM workers (scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians).

The counterpoint is made by this Senate Committee Report:

…the demand for STEM-skilled workers is expected to continue to increase in the future, as both the number and proportion of STEM jobs are projected to grow. New Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that employment in STEM occupations is expected to expand faster than employment in non-STEM occupations from 2010 to 2020 (by 17 versus 14 percent). In addition to government projections of employment growth in STEM fields, business organizations and other groups have issued numerous reports and surveys that suggest that there is a heightening need for qualified STEM workers – both those with highly specialized skills as well as those with a more general knowledge of STEM concepts. For example, even at the height of the recession, a survey of manufacturers found that over one-third were experiencing shortages of engineers and scientists – and most of them anticipated greater shortages in the future. In addition, an earlier survey found that over half of manufacturers believe that the public education system insufficiently prepares students with the math and science skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. Furthermore, concerns regarding shortages of skilled workers are compounded by the pending retirements of many baby boomers, an issue cited by both private industry and government officials.

So which is it? A bit of both, I think.

Job listings are largely fantasies. Just because someone wants a domain expert with 10 years of experience doesn’t mean they’ll get one. Often, employers truly care about a small but important subset of the long list of “requirements” in a job listing.

There being little demand for workers to tackle “big problems” does not imply that there isn’t a shortage of STEM workers. That might simply be a reflection of the fact that it takes huge teams to tackle large problems, and there are rarely listings for “come cure cancer” or “come build the next-gen vehicle.” Open positions will likely focus on small niche sub-problems, which don’t seem as big and challenging.