Monday, November 7, 2011

Trends: STEM Careers

Over the last six months I have found it almost impossible to not step out of my apartment every day and trip over a news story about STEMs.  No, not the things that flowers are attached to.  Rather, the acronym "STEM"s refers to careers and college majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Education, policy, and economics are all buzzing about this topic.

Part of this stems (no pun intended) from the rising tuition costs and thus, the rising student loan debt of the current generation of college students.  You can check out my previous blog entries here and here for more information.  Parents and students want to know exactly what they will be getting for those $40,000 in loans they have to pay back for the undergraduate degree.  Will they get a job?  Will that career be relatively secure in the future?  Will they make a comfortable living over their lifetime in that field?

Some of the debate has centered on whether it is worth it, in today's economy, to get a liberal arts education encompassing the humantities:  philosophy, history, English, music?  Some would say, yes.
"After all, advocates of the humanities argue, it’s precisely because technology is fundamentally transforming our world that we should teach students to be broad systematic thinkers capable of absorbing the bounties of knowledge that arise from new wellsprings of discovery in fields like genetics, artificial intelligence and robotics." (source: www.pbs.org)
In the interests of full-disclosure, I hold an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in music, and I always reveled in my humanities classes.  However, it can be hard to argue with numbers, and a recent study published in this last year was able to link earnings over a lifetime to college major.  In this May article in the Washington Post, the author discusses how those who majored in the humanities, counseling, psychology, or the arts made significantly less money than those who were, say engineers.  The article does go on to say, however, that some of it is a value choice--those who major in, say, counseling, probably knew that they were not going to make as much money as a computer scientist.  However, the argument is made that colleges should link future job prospects and earnings to majors so that students and families can make wise choices about their chosen paths.

Which leads us back to careers and majors in STEMs.   These careers are trending up, and in a big way.  The US Commerce Department released a report this summer that details that STEMs jobs are growing at a much faster rate than non-STEMs careers, and that those workers in STEMs are earning 26% more than those in non-STEMs fields.  This blog post appeared last week with some pretty stark statistics about how those with associates and bachelors degrees in STEMs fields are making more than those with masters or doctoral degrees in non-STEMs careers:
"It’s become less about the degree level, and a lot more about what you take.  The whole structure that we all grew up with has essentially broken down.” (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
The issue then becomes about the training for these careers and how the American education system is preparing students for this quickly expanding field.  The author of this article discusses how, even though the job opportunities will continue to grow in STEMs fields, a great many of our students are not prepared for them, lacking the higher level math and science knowledge to major in these areas in college and then find employment in these fields.  He feels that both educators and business partnerships have a responsibility to help mentor students into STEMs fields so that they can be successful and innovative in a 21st century economy.

What does this mean for us as school counselors?
  • Be up on the trends.  This has really been a big topic in the last year, so you can bet that our students and families are aware of it.  They will have a lot of questions about what possible careers there are in science, technology, engineering, and math.  They will want to know what colleges have strong programs in these fields.  They will inquire about what courses in high school they should be taking if they want to explore some of these areas.  For all of them advanced math is a must, and courses like computer science, engineering, and physics.
  • Encourage students to take the necessary upper-level math and science courses.  Some of our students need that encouragement and support to tackle what can be some very challenging coursework.  Yet, with a little patience and a focus on end-goals and the future, many more of them can probably be successful in these classes then they think.
  • Link those who are interested in these careers with support and enrichment.  I get quite a few e-mails each year from organizations like the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars who have summer programs, although there are many others in every state.  Check out area universities, especially those known for strong STEMs programs--they almost always have some sort of summer camps for interested students.  These programs give them an opportunity to network with other students who have their similar interest.  Further, the science and math teachers in your building are a wealth of information with regards to resources and can also serve as formal or informal mentors to your students.
  • If you have a career day or career event, make sure that STEMs careers are included.  Since these are trending careers and growth is expected to continue in this field for quite some time, try to find people in one or more of these fields to come in and present if you are holding an event.
Not every student is going to want to major in a STEMs area or seek out a career as a software engineer, and there will always be plenty of students drawn to the humanities and the arts.  However, this is an ever growing field with many creative and interesting career paths that our students can pursue with a little help from their counselors.

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