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STEM jobs and the economy

September 4, 2012

STEM jobs

You know how we’re always hearing that not enough people major in science, technology, math, and engineering? The STEM subjects? That our country is losing pace in the competition with other countries for technology and such?

True and false. True that there are plenty of jobs for people with very strong skills in these areas. On the other hand we don’t want everyone to suddenly become a scientist/engineer/mathematician/computer nerd, because the truth is we don’t really have that many jobs. It’s not like the factory jobs of yesteryear or the agricultural jobs of yesteryesteryear.

Why? These jobs by nature are idiosyncratic and typically conclude with hugely scalable results. There’s only so many social media systems we need created, only so many air traffic control programs that need to work. After a while we might actually be done with some of this. An Detroit-sized army of engineers would not be the right tool for the job, actually, we wouldn’t know what to do with them.

So when you hear calls for more people like this, take it with a grain of salt. The truth is, they are rare now, will probably stay relatively rare, and the reason there’s so much emphasis on STEM professionals is this: having skills like that is a ticket to the elite. Let me explain why I say “elite”, which is a loaded term.

The Economy

There has been plenty of documentation of the following phenomenon: instead of lots of middle class job creation, we’ve been seeing technology-driven high-paying job creation, on the one hand, and a bunch of low-paying, person-to-person jobs like working in health care as home health aides on the other hand.

Be a nerd with me and extrapolate our current system out fifty years. What do you see happening?

Here’s what I see. Continued loss of classic middle-class jobs, continued efficiency gains with highly scaled industries run by a few super techno-savvy billionaire elites. Lots of people either jobless or working in the remaining jobs that can’t be done by computers or taken off-shore, mostly involving food and healthcare. Society has been hollowed out, once and for all.

I actually believe in this, and I don’t think it’s really avoidable. On the other hand, it could either end well or badly, depending on how we deal with it, and depending on what the standard of living is for people who have been edged out of a living by the enormous technological gains we’ve made.

Do they get well-paid for the work they do find? Do they have access to healthcare? Do they have to worry about feeding themselves and their kids? Do they get told by some hypocritical blowhard politician to man up and get a job when no jobs exist? Are they in irretrievably hopeless student debt?

Categories: rant
  1. Tom
    September 4, 2012 at 8:13 am

    I disagree with your model and your assessment.

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  2. September 4, 2012 at 8:15 am

    ? Can you say more?

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    • Tom
      September 4, 2012 at 8:43 am

      Yes. Your argument seems to ignore all externalities. It sounds to me like you’re saying, for example, we shouldn’t develop efficient technology to capture solar energy because of all the middle-class coal workers it would put out of work.

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  3. September 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

    What?? No, you didn’t read what I wrote. I said this transition is unavoidable – I’m not trying to avoid it, I’m trying to ask how we are going to deal with it.

    So in your scenario, say we figure out how to capture solar energy. The middle-class coal workers, are they going to have health care and are they going to have high quality food? Or are they just going to be left to starve?

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    • Tom
      September 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

      I don’t believe it’s enough to just sit back and let it happen. We should pursue it and many other technological advancements. And while we may have a workforce pursuing it today, there is currently a shortage of STEM graduates and those graduates are declining while our current workforce is aging and will need to be replaced. This is where the push for STEM comes from.

      Yes. In my scenario everyone has healthcare and food which is made possible not necessarily by the solar achievement but by other technological advancements that it enables.

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  4. suevanhattum
    September 4, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Yes, probably all of us reading this blog want everyone to have adequate food, healthcare, etc. Cathy’s point is that it only takes a few more STEM grads to fill the shortage (I don’t know, maybe double what we have now?). For everyone who’s not really good – the best – at this stuff, becoming a STEM major won’t help them get a job. If 50% of our college grads were good at STEM, then only a small percentage of them could get the good jobs. What jobs are there for everyone else? Do we find a way to decouple good standard of living from good job?

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    • Karen Louis
      September 5, 2012 at 4:53 am

      There is also a perverse–for the purpose of this discussion–outcome that is a byproduct of creating talented STEM practitioners.

      It takes a relatively long time investment (4 years minimum, 20+ maximum) to be credentialed and experienced well enough to be considered ‘good’ at STEM.

      And you need to push a _lot_ of people through the education pipeline to account for the dropouts, the washouts, and the burnouts.

      How are you possibly going to convince talented students of the wisdom of entering a (potentially) 20-year long training sequence if all that gives them the ability to do is fiercely compete for fewer and fewer jobs with other graduates of the 20-year education cycle?

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    • September 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Point taken, but I think there’s a need for nearly everyone to use more math. Factory workers who can participate in the various quantitative tracking schemes (statistical quality control, six sigma, etc.) are in more demand than those who can’t.

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  5. mathematrucker
    September 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

    My favorite Vonnegut novel “Player Piano” (published in 1951) is based on a similar premise of society being divided into a small elite of managers and engineers in control of a mass of pawns living in poverty. Much of the book was strikingly current when I read it in 1983 and probably still is.

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    • mathematrucker
      September 4, 2012 at 10:52 am

      …and re another 61 years into the future (which is what this thread is about), Vonnegut’s premise probably won’t be obsolete then, either. Sure, probably “all of us reading this blog” place a high value on raising the living standards of the poor, but there are unfortunately too many out there who either just give the notion lip service with ulterior motives in mind or are simply too dull or uneducated to recognize the lip service for what it is.

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  6. Billbo
    September 4, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I’ve been telling anyone who will listen something similar for several years now. I expect automation to continue to do the same thing to manufacturing jobs worldwide that mechanization did to agriculture in the US. i.e. A drastic reduction in the number of workers needed to supply the desires of the population. Just like we can only eat so much in a year, I don’t see us being able to make use of an “infinite” stream of manufactured goods either. I also see a limit on the consumption of artisan (music/books/sculpture/etc.) goods and services as well, due to space and time limitations in our lives. Personal services outside of health care (barber, waiter, store clerk, etc.) are not only self limiting, but we’ve seen already that they pay poorly. I never even thought about whether STEM related jobs would take up the slack, but upon reflection I put them in the same category as artisan goods/services. Yes, they are valuable; but we just won’t need enough of it to take up the slack; nor can everyone do it. So I see the human labor cost of supplying basic (non-health care) needs continuing to drop. The obvious result is less labor is needed. If goods and services were distributed based solely on human labor input, this might not be a problem. But since we also distribute based on ownership of capital goods, it won’t work that way. Instead, the minority of the population who own a significant share of productive capital will be fine while the majority will find less and less of a market for their direct labor. Manufacturers moving out of the US and offshoring in general is just the first step in this process. Ironically, how successful STEM specialists are at automating human labor will determine how fast/whether my doomsday scenario comes to pass.

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    • Karen Louis
      September 5, 2012 at 4:47 am

      The Brynjolfsson book (Race Against The Machine) is a very current look at the modern impact of automation on the types of jobs that even well-qualified STEMsters might find in short supply as time marches on.

      Martin Ford’s book, which is a few years older, and incidentally which is available online for free at http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/, is an acknowledgement of this upcoming crisis, and gives the outlines of a few ways that we can economically survive falling off this precipice.

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  7. Linda Brown
    September 4, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I’m haunted by the fact that we have created a society in which one person can buy his own Hawaiian Island (Larry Ellison) while a number of children are hungry, and we seem hellbent on moving to a society where more people can buy their own islands and more children can go hungry.

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  8. ScentOfViolets
    September 4, 2012 at 11:54 am

    This is where I make my usual reference to Lem. From the 24th voyage of Ijon Tichy:

    A certain learned constructor built the New Machines, devices so excellent that they could work quite independently, without supervision. And that was the beginning of the catastrophe. When the New Machines appeared in the factories, hordes of Drudgelings lost their jobs; and, receiving no salary, they faced starvation. . .”

    “Excuse me, Phool,” I asked, “but what became of the profits the factories made?”

    “The profits,” he replied, “went to the rightful owners, of course. Now, then, as I was saying, the threat of annihilation hung. . .”

    “But what are you saying, worthy Phool!” I cried. “All that had to be done was to make the factories common property, and the New Machines would have become a blessing to you!”

    The minute I said this the Phool trembled, blinked his ten eyes nervously, and cupped his ears to ascertain whether any of his companions milling about the stairs had overheard my remark.

    “By the Ten Noses of the Phoo, I implore you, O stranger, do not utter such vile heresy, which attacks the very foundation of our freedom! Our supreme law, the principle of Civic Initiative, states that no one can be compelled, constrained, or even coaxed to do what he does not wish. Who, then, would dare expropriate the Eminents’ factories, it being their will to enjoy possession of same? That would be the most horrible violation of liberty imaginable. Now, then, to continue, the New Machines produced an abundance of extremely cheap goods and excellent food, but the Drudgelings bought nothing, for they had not the wherewithal. . .”

    “But, my dear Phool!” I cried. “Surely you do not claim that the Drudgelings did this voluntarily? Where was your liberty, your civic freedom?!”

    “Ah, worthy stranger,” sighed the Phool, “the laws were still observed, but they say only that the citizen is free to do whatever he wants with his property and money; they do not say where he is to obtain them. No one oppressed the Drudgelings, no one forced them to do anything; they were completely free and could do what they pleased, yet instead of rejoicing at such freedom they died off like flies.”

    Used to be a common sf scenario that most people would be working 10-hour weeks in the bright future with rocket fins – though no one ever really thought about how to credibly get from A to B (and that should have been a clue). The rather more common sf scenario these days is to have the rich kill the rest of us off when we can be reliably replaced by automation. Getting from A to B in the modern updated version seems almost too obvious to mention.

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  9. September 4, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I disagree with you.

    Please read “The Machine Stops” for further details.

    Specifically, I expect that we are going to hit, or have already hit, what I call “peak cheap energy”, which is going to cause us all kinds of pain.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops

    Basically, what I think that we have done is created a massive “technology bubble” for lack of a better word, because our system is not sustainable from a thermodynamic perspective.

    You can also look to Jeremy Grantham’s recent missive on “Peak Everything.

    Here’s a Zero Hedge article pointing in that direction. Enjoy.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/article/gmo-quarterly-letter-grantham-coming-peak-everything-disaster

    What we are really facing is the decline of the West, as a fractal cultural entity, in a Spenglerian sense.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spengler%27s_civilization_model

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  10. albrt
    September 5, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Folks considering a STEM career might also want to consider the longstanding trajectory for middle aged technicians whose skills are no longer fresh. 10% become managers, 10% go into sales, 10% become entreprenuers, 10% become teachers and 10% find a way to burrow into permanent positions like Wally from Dilbert. The other 50% get riffed sooner or later.

    I made those numbers up, but it’s basically true and has been since the 70s.

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    • tomas
      September 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      this

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  11. Matt
    September 6, 2012 at 6:22 am

    “run by a few super techno-savvy billionaire elites” — just to be clear, typically the people in charge and the STEM people are not the same. The people in charge hire STEM people for a decent salary, but the elite rich are the people in charge, the people with business and political skills. Such human-oriented skills can co-exist with technology-oriented skills, but they are quite different skill sets. If you hear of a STEM wizard, you don’t assume they are rich. You assume they have a good job. If you hear of a successful business, you can assume the leader has good personal skills (meaning “does well in interactions with people”, not meaning “liked by others”). There is no reason for this to change as the years go by.

    It used to be that being strong could help get you a job, as a dock worker, farm laborer, etc. Machines and power tools have made this irrelevant. Now going to the gym is viewed as an optional luxury. As we move into the future, technology will also replace human intelligence, and becoming knowledgable about anything will be an optional luxury. Already today, to find out more about some disease, you don’t even think of going and talking to a doctor. In the future, machines will be able to use and reason about the knowledge they currently simply store — they will be able to offer better business and political advice than the cleverest human advisor. The transition will be gradual, not overnight, appearing simply as a steady lowering in workforce numbers needed, as individual workers become more capable with the help of new technology, a pattern we have already seen repeatedly. However, the limit of this path is clear: there will be precious little left for us humans to do. The only things of lasting value will be things which cannot be manufactured – ownership of land, power, intellectual property, and so on. These will underlie an automated economy, with different classes of wealth. Most people will have absolutely nothing to offer in this economy (including people who opted for the luxury of training for one of the educated professions). We will have to see how the landed gentry treat the masses whom they do not need in any way. If history is any guide, it doesn’t look good.

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  12. September 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    “We will have to see how the landed gentry treat the masses whom they do not need in any way. If history is any guide, it doesn’t look good.”

    Which then results in the sound of tumbrels and a sickening smack as the heads of said landed gentry are efficiently removed from their heads because they were too stupid to see that their actions have consequences.

    See the French Revolution for details.

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  13. September 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    “True and false. True that there are plenty of jobs for people with very strong skills in these areas. On the other hand we don’t want everyone to suddenly become a scientist/engineer/mathematician/computer nerd, because the truth is we don’t really have that many jobs.”

    I’m not sure why people’s movement into STEM is cast as an either/or situation: That’s not how an economy works. There are openings for STEM jobs right now, despite longstanding high unemployment.

    A related issue is the prompting of people to go to college (STEM or not) by the federal government, in the form of the student loan program. It doesn’t make sense to underwrite educations for fields for which there are bleak job prospects.

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  14. September 24, 2012 at 12:25 am
  15. George DeMarse
    November 26, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Cathy–you are right on target.

    The “mass production” jobs we saw fifty years ago have dissipated–there will still be a few around in smaller plants making limited, specialized runs. Middle class men will compete for these jobs–and many will be left behind.

    That leaves the job creation split of the STEM-type jobs, university research for PhD’s, corporate STEM types who write code and are pushed to create ever-more consumer technology (fairly well paid but long hours and bureaucratic), technicians, who perform lower-skilled technological functions such as computer repair, lab assistance, medical technicians, etc. These jobs will be well paid–but the STEM education required will exclude most from these positions.

    That leaves the service sector which requires little formal education, but also pays very little. Retail jobs, landscaping work, trades (plumbing, electrical, laborers), some child care, etc.

    Although the “trades” do require training and some licensure, they don’t usually require degrees. These can be good paying jobs but physically demanding; not everyone can do them.

    Now you “can” start your own business–which the pundits say is a great thing. However, they fail to mention that about 70% of new businesses fail within 5 years.

    That is the world of jobs now and in the foreseeable future. It will not employ that many people, particularly at high rates of pay. It will not provide many benefits such as healthcare or life insurance.

    And yes, you are right. Government, yes Government, must now provide the safety nets that employment used to provide but no longer does in a global capitalist environment.

    That includes Social Security for the aged, medicare for the aged, Obamacare for younger people who will not get insurance through employment, unemployment for those transitioning to other jobs (frictional employment), welfare for the chronically unemployed.

    We do have an option–we can say “you’re on your own” like Romney and company. But we’ve seen what happens when governments do that–Greece and Spain for example. People riot in the streets, the economy shrinks and then tanks–and we have years of no growth anyway.

    George DeMarse
    U.S. Office of Personnel Management (Ret.)

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  1. September 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm
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