It seems that every article on higher education and the workforce these days has to do with STEM jobs: "We need more diversity in STEM."
"We need more students to major in STEM."
"STEM fields are hot."
We get it. The U.S. has a greater need for engineers than poets. But we have literally STEMed our way into a heap of problems, and it starts with that acronym.
1. STEM devalues STEM: If that statement sounds convoluted, imagine the reasoning behind it. The term "STEM" refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a former mathematics major and the CEO of a "STEM-focused" software company, I cannot tell you how inane it is to group those four categories together as though they are somehow related or equivocal. The STEM acronym takes a group of fields that are critical to society's advancement and dilutes their meaning and definition to the lowest possible common denominator. Science and technology have nothing to do with each other. Designing a building and treating disease are disparate processes. And devising new math theorems has nothing to do with technical writing.
What STEM has become is a way of saying "not the humanities," which, in addition to being woefully inaccurate, is deeply offensive to the humanities. Communication is not a STEM field, but it's a necessary skill for pretty much any human being. And English literature and history might not be STEM related, but anyone hoping to improve on society's mistakes would be best to give both of these subjects some attention.
2. The acronym dissuades marginalized groups: Much of the focus on STEM fields in the past 20 years has been around recruiting individuals from all walks of life to assume STEM-related jobs – particularly engineering, manufacturing, and technology jobs – because the demand for talent to fill these jobs is at an all-time high. Alan Stukalsky, the chief information officer at Randstad North America, a division of the world's second-largest workforce solutions company and a longtime Bullhorn customer, is a passionate advocate for technology education and acutely understands the demand for these types of jobs.
"As a Hispanic-American, I have been fortunate to navigate through the clutter of the STEM world and find and pursue my passion. For many, the thought of STEM studies – and the enormity of the term – creates fear before consideration of the potential reward. We need more education and access in all communities, representing people of all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, providing a clear understanding of the many exciting paths available in STEM so that kids can find the specific field that inspires them."
Unfortunately, as Stukalsky and visionaries like him would tell you, "We need minorities" is not a diversity strategy. Encouraging non-white talent from all aspects of the socioeconomic spectrum to consider a technical career requires unfettered access and opportunity. In fact, lumping all our efforts behind this clunky, tired acronym of STEM only dissuades young people from trying out fields that might interest them due to false equivalencies.
Maybe there's an economically disadvantaged student whose life was touched by cancer, who dreams passionately of going to medical school and curing cancer. She might be reluctant to participate in STEM camps and the like because she struggles with math, and to most, "STEM" equals "math." Or she might feel that such programs only cater to teaching software programming, which doesn't interest her. How do we open the doors for her to pursue a career in medicine when we've grouped what is arguably the most important field in the universe with a bunch of unrelated subjects?
3. Recruiting people for these fields is problematic because the college model is broken: We know that the demand for talent in technical fields is unprecedented. We also know that, for better or worse, we as a society have placed greater importance on technical careers than on careers that focus solely on the humanities. We're not doing ourselves any favors when it comes to STEM recruitment with the current model of higher education in the United States. In short, the college model is totally broken. The idea of a bachelor's degree has become so commonplace that it's altogether devalued, and higher education as a concept has suffered from deflation.
And the liberal arts model, once a brilliant way to create well-rounded individuals who could try out numerous subjects before deciding on one in which to specialize, is outdated now. Elite colleges have become a means to an end. They're a gate, a necessity, a jumping-off point that the best students use to get their foot in the door to a successful job. They're a stopgap. High school students compete relentlessly in highly structured lives to get into the best schools simply to pad their resumes for an eventual career in something lucrative.
4. We need to lower the costs of education: Ultimately, higher education will reach a tipping point in this country, and we're already seeing the signs of it. Once-respectable vocational schools such as ITT Technical Institute were forced to shut down due to questionable business practices, and the government is cracking down on for-profit colleges that promise graduates decent jobs but don't deliver. These schools were alternatives to the national universities and private colleges that are out of reach for the vast majority of Americans. Do you want to go to a top college in the U.S. and not graduate with a mountain of debt? For anyone other than the wealthiest of Americans, it might not be possible anymore.
We already know that students aren't treating national liberal arts schools as a chance to "find themselves," so why don't we embrace a more elite form of vocational training? If we can dismantle the stigma of the vocational school, and start funding and supporting colleges and programs that help students excel in very specific subjects, we can not only create a generation of capable workers, but also dramatically reduce education costs and individual financial burdens. Why not have a college just for health sciences? A college just for computer science? A college just for mathematics?
We could keep the traditional liberal arts model for students who truly value a well-rounded, humanities-driven education and are willing to pay for it. If the technical fields are really "where the money is," then elevating vocational technical training will inevitably level the playing field decades down the line. The flaw in this line of thinking: What about the economically disadvantaged student who wants to be a writer or an art historian? If we can create a healthy enough, popular enough series of parallel technical training programs and schools, we free up the opportunity for greater financial aid opportunities at traditional colleges. Either way, higher education in this country needs significant reform as soon as possible, because the costs are simply unsustainable.
There's no perfect solution for how to fulfill demand for technical talent in the U.S., but as a technologist and CEO, I can tell you with conviction that the term "STEM" is highly problematic. To move forward, we should distance ourselves from it and start to see subjects – and people – as individuals.