Is STEM Recruitment Working?

The technical world, that of math, science, and engineering, has been trying for decades to get more young people interested in it.   It collectively sponsors TV programs, high school contests, and scholarships.   Politicians are constantly touting the benefits of STEM careers, as are companies.

So has all this encouragement had an effect?   To check, let’s look to see if more people are entering the fields, as defined by getting bachelor’s degrees in them.  This should be a better guide than graduate degrees, because those are often not economic, and are heavily affected by how many foreign students come.  Let’s also derate by the number of people in the age group, to make sure it’s not some population shift.  The Census tracks population in five-year groupings, so let’s pick ages 20-24, which covers the usual age for  for when people get bachelor’s degrees. The number of people in that range has varied from 16M in 1969, up to 22M at the peak of the Boomers in 1983, down to 18M in 1997, and back up to 23M in 2015.

The National Center for Educational Statistics, a division of the NSF, tracks the number of degrees here: WebCASPAR database.  I’ve massaged all the data into this spreadsheet –  STEM Recruitment As Measured by Bachelor Degrees – but let me put the charts here with some description. So, first, engineering:

I’m including Computer Science under engineering, because science is the study of nature, not machinery.   CS is much the most popular degree, but interest in it varies a lot.  It peaked in 2003, when people got into it during the Dot-Com Bubble in the late 90s, crashed in the Great Recession, and is still not back to peak levels.

Mech E was stable for decades, but recently is on the rise, probably because of robotics. The TV shows Mythbusters and Junkyard Wars may also be helpful, since those stress mechanical invention above all other kinds of engineering.

EE peaked in the 80s, and has been on a long, slow decline since, although there’s a recent small up-tick.  EE is a capital-intensive field these days, unlike most of its history, and so recruitment is down.

Civil is pretty constant, as are Industrial and Aerospace, but Chemical is doing well.

Other is a catch-all for many categories, and is doing very well.   Its major categories are Biochemical, Biomedical, Mechatronic, Naval and Ocean Engineering, Nuclear, and Systems.  The data doesn’t break this down, but I would expect that the bio-oriented and the robot-oriented ones have big increases.

Now let’s look at math and the major sciences:

Biology utterly rules, and is doing great.  About twice as many people get bachelors in biology as in CS.  In fact, there are more biologists than all engineering fields combined.  This is partly because Bio is an entry degree for medicine, and partly because Bio really is the dominant field of scientific research these days.

Math is actually down from its level in the 1960s, but is on a slow rise these days.   CS probably took away the more practically-oriented math people in the 1970s.

Chemistry, physics, and the natural sciences (Astronomy, Meteorology, Oceanography, and Geology) are all stagnant.

The above are the so-called hard sciences, a term I dislike, but they’re the ones that concern the natural world.  The ones that concern the human world are more popular:

Psychology and Sociology are just fundamentally more interesting to us humans than fields that deal with abstract forces or invisible molecules.  I think we’re on a threshold in these fields of being able to truly model what’s happening in them, which should lead to breakthroughs at least as big as those of 19th century physics and 20th century chemistry.   Like those, they can also be used for ill, as I mentioned in Weaponized Psychology Helped Elect Trump  and in When Modeling Goes Bad – “Weapons of Math Destruction” .  But understanding is always key to progress, and these fields are moving fast.

Medical Sciences is on an upswing as part of medicine in general, but Anthropology seems constant, perhaps because too much of the world is inter-connected.  Linguistics as actually on a good upswing but can’t be seen at this scale.

Finally, let’s look at how STEM fields compare to the trends in degrees as a whole:

The large fields that are growing are Business (unsurprising as the country becomes more mercantile), Natural Science (largely Biology), and Human Science (largely Psychology).  Engineering is on a slight rise (largely CS), and Humanities and Education are flat.  The big changes happened in the 1980s, when Humanities and Education were displaced by Business, probably as opportunities for women grew.

So what can we say overall?   It doesn’t really look that good for STEM.   Biology and CS are up, but they’re volatile.   Other STEM fields are largely flat or only slowly growing.  My own field, EE, is actually declining.  STEM promoters are almost certainly not trying to increase the number of Psychology majors, but that’s doing very well.   Maybe this promotion has a minor effect compared to people’s inherent interest in fields and the career prospects for it.




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