Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Sociology

Five Questions with John D. Skrentny, author of “Wasted Education: How We Fail Our Graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”

We live in an era of veritable STEM obsession. Tech companies dominate American enterprise and economy and they’ve become the symbol of innovation in the digital age, advancing the fields of AI, robotics, and medicine. More so, they’re some of our greatest hopes for scientific solutions to impending crises such as adapting to our changing climates.

Yet as the sector expands, it needs more and more workers to stay on the cutting edge. As a society, we’ve poured enormous resources—not the least of which is billions of dollars—into cultivating young minds for STEM careers. We lure graduates with the promise of good pay, meaningful work, and job stability in a diverse field of brilliant professionals. But the reality is that we’re facing a worker exodus with as many as 70% of STEM graduates opting out of STEM work. Sociologist John D. Skrentny investigates why, and the answer, he shows, is simple: the failure of STEM employers.

In Wasted Education, Skrentny pulls back the curtain on how STEM work drives away graduates. He examines the “burn and churn” management practices that chew workers up and spit them back out, the lack of job security, constant training for a never-ending stream of morally dubious technologies, and the field’s exclusion of women, people of color, and older workers.

In this post, we chat with John about his research and the important lessons to be learned if we have any hope of improving the return on our society’s STEM education investment.

book cover for Wasted Education

While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

The biggest surprise was the very fact that prompted me to write the book: Most STEM graduates do not work in STEM jobs. It seemed as if I’d been hearing about America facing an urgent, hair-on-fire, crisis-level shortage of STEM workers for so long that this just blew my mind. Then I read about the shortage in other outlets—both in the news and in reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—and I was even more surprised by how many authoritative sources were saying the same things over and over about the worker gap. How could it be that STEM grads were opting out of their disciplines’ jobs when the need for them was so dire?

At the time, I was studying immigration and was interested in the demand for foreign STEM workers. When I learned that the great majority of American STEM grads were working outside of the field, I realized I had to find the answer behind their exodus. Why were employers arguing there was a shortage, and that they needed schools—and foreign countries—to fill the gaps when the data showed that there was a surplus of STEM grads?

Immediately, I suspected that employers were key players here, but I’d say a second surprise—and a close second to the first—was how many factors that drive STEM grads from STEM jobs (or at least don’t keep them there) are in the employers’ control. If they face a shortage, it’s a self-inflicted wound.

The government pumps billions of dollars into STEM education, and parents and teachers have been pushing students into this career path. Why then do we still hear regularly about a lack of STEM workers?

There are at least three reasons.

First, employers and trade associations keep repeating it. They tell it to universities, the media, and to Congress. Bill Gates, for example, has been a prominent voice saying we don’t have enough STEM grads—and he’s not exactly obscure.

Second, the news media really likes the story of “not enough STEM grads,” and I think they do so because the stakes are so high. The shortage rationale for more STEM grads speaks to the economy’s health as well as to the idea that employers are practically begging for people to fill their job openings—both make compelling news line hooks to draw in viewers.

There’s also the angle of national competitiveness to our STEM education imperative. It’s widely accepted that innovation is the key to a competitive economy, economic growth, as well as national strength and security. The idea here is like this: “Hey, we’re America. We’re supposed to be the richest and most powerful country in the world. But there are other countries that do better than us in STEM education? And China—the second largest economy and challenger of US global dominance—is one of them?” That’s another powerful hook for the media.

Third, there’s a sort of STEM education industrial complex pushing the idea that we need more and better STEM students. STEM programs are in a lot of elementary and high schools, but they’ve also expanded their reach outside of the confines of classrooms. Now, it’s commonplace for toy stores and bookstores to have STEM sections, too, and many, many organizations focus their recruiting energy there—especially to encourage girls and people of color to aspire to STEM jobs.

It’s everywhere. But, I found few were looking at the reasons why so many STEM grads were rejecting these supposedly great jobs.

There is a commonly held belief that STEM jobs are great careers and its workers are pampered, even spoiled. Yet many face overwork, layoffs, and discrimination. What is the reality of STEM management and wages?

This is part of what I mean by employers complaining about shortages are actually complaining about self-inflicted wounds.

Let’s talk about wages. Of course, I’m talking about aggregates—about big-picture patterns. There are a lot of happy, well-paid STEM workers. When talking to STEM workers—and there are a lot in San Diego as we have a lot of tech and life sciences firms here—I always have to show that I understand that individual situations may vary. Some STEM workers are paid enormous salaries, especially in AI these days. Salaries are very high in fields in a boom cycle, such as petroleum engineers when oil prices are high.

But the numbers don’t lie.

Physicians and lawyers make more than the great majority of STEM workers, but what’s really interesting is that STEM employers pay their non-technical or less-technical workers more. Of course, I’m talking about managers. Though some employers try to maintain a technical track for promotions, most do not because the data show that managers tend to make more than the technical folks. In other words, if you are a STEM worker and you want to advance your career, your best bet is to move out of STEM and at least into management. So, the pay structure in STEM jobs—which is entirely at the discretion of employers—incentivizes moves into management. But have you heard of employers complaining of a shortage of managers? It almost sounds funny.

Employers also control their management techniques, what I call “burn-and-churn,” as they seem designed to get enormous amounts of labor from STEM workers before they burn out and need to be replaced. Though shareholders also play a big role, employers make the decisions about whether or not to lay off workers and which workers to let go. They also control what kinds of training they offer (which is typically very little) so workers’ technical skills can easily become obsolete, and they leave STEM.

Employers also decide how accommodating they are to women, historically underrepresented minorities, and to older workers. Tolerance for discrimination is another factor that appears to drive STEM grads away from STEM jobs.

What should parents and STEM students think about pursuing STEM majors? Should they?

A big message of the book is that parents and students considering STEM majors should do so with their eyes wide open. STEM jobs are likely to be different than they have been led to believe.

A lot of STEM education, especially in the earlier years, is focused on the wonders of science, the thrill of discovery, the elegance of math, and the excitement of innovation. But I show that STEM grads don’t often get to experience much of that in their jobs—or it gets bogged down by the huge issues we’re talking about now.

Given the fact that most STEM workers work outside of what I call the “traditional” STEM occupations, my advice to STEM majors is to make sure they get a well-rounded education to advance careers outside of more purely technical jobs. That would include courses that develop abilities for critical thinking and both written and oral communication. Courses in the humanities, the more humanistic social sciences, and even business are great for developing these kinds of skills. I realize that sounds like I’m promoting my own field, but honestly, I think this is what I would do if I were a student interested in STEM. It’s hedging your bets.  

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?

This will sound grand but let me explain. I hope that readers will understand that STEM workers are incredibly important to the future of humanity and of the planet, so we need to treat them better than we have been.

The last chapter addresses the question, “STEM education for what?” This is to get at the issue of what STEM workers are doing with their skills and knowledge. Another reason grads leave STEM is that the jobs are often what scholars would call “morally stressful”: that is, there are things about the job that make them feel ideologically anxious or conflicted. In some cases, it’s the very business model of the employer. Lots of STEM jobs involve doing things that research shows can be damaging to people and the planet. Social media can provoke conflict, political polarization, and depression; internet surveillance invades privacy; fossil fuels and some chemicals poison the planet—the list goes on. Investors like the business models that produce these outcomes not because of the results themselves, but because they can be extremely profitable. This is especially true of any business where the main product is software. No factories are needed, fewer workers are on the payroll, and the product is easily tested, produced, and tweaked every year or so.

Yet this is all happening while humanity faces dire threats—the warming of the climate; plastic pollution; pandemics; species declines and extinctions. We absolutely will not avoid calamitous developments in all of these areas without scientific and engineering innovations that STEM workers can create.

We need STEM workers, now more than ever. Unleashing their skills and knowledge is possible but it will require systemic transformations. Employers can make changes in the areas I’ve described, but investors must continue to move away from a model where corporations exist solely to maximize shareholder value in the short term. Venture capitalists need to consider the risk they are adding to their own portfolios when they fund businesses that are likely to be destructive. Governments, both federal and state, can place limits on some harmful business models, and give incentives to the firms and innovations we need to grow—as Congress did with the Inflation Reduction Act. The future depends on the innovations of STEM workers, I believe, but we all have crucial roles to play.

Headshot of white male in plaid collared shirt.

John D. Skrentny is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has authored and edited books about education and employment opportunities, and his work has appeared in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Wasted Education is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.