Over the past 10 years especially, calls to increase Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering (STEM) output from our country’s schools has been deafening. It is impossible to listen to almost any policy maker or CEO speaking on the topic of education reform in the U.S. who does not couch their entire analysis on the STEM worker shortage crisis the country is currently facing. Schools and universities in the U.S., if they are to do one thing, so the story goes, is to produce a massive STEM workforce that can help the economy roll past fast moving competitors such as India and China (insert any other country that scores better on the trends in international mathematics and science study [TIMSS] test). The problem with this story, as Harvard Law School senior research associate Michael S. Teitelbaum has recently pointed out in his study on the STEM workforce shortage, is that it does not match the facts on the ground.
Teitelbaum’s as well as other recent studies on the STEM workforce show that, in fact, STEM workers in most fields are suffering from the same rates of unemployment as other professional degree fields. The constructed perception of a vast open horizon of employment opportunities awaiting the 21st century student/worker is exactly that: a manufactured discourse driven by politicians and industry leaders who want to manage the STEM worker population in this country to their advantage. Given this new data on the STEM workforce in the U.S. it is time to reassess what I have called the Neo-Sputnik narrative driving current neoliberal educational reform in the U.S. through the actual verifiable contours of the STEM workforce. Here is what I see as the most compelling and insightful findings from the recent research done on the STEM crisis in this country as it relates to major K-12 educational reform policy initiatives such as Race to the Top or Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.
• Wages are stagnate or falling in many STEM fields. This finding is telling because, as Teitelbaum rightly asserts, if there were truly a STEM work shortage companies would increase wages in order to draw bright young people into the workforce
• Wages are not increasing (which should follow if worker demand is high and supply is low) because STEM industry lobbyists and politicians have passed legislation that allows for a steady stream of lower-wage workers from other countries (see the legislation for international student visa waivers that has accompanied many economic recovery acts of late)
• The few areas where STEM degree holders are enjoying raises is in booming industries such as the petroleum fracking industry
• Finally, STEM careers are actually among the most unstable and volatile employment types in the economy given the short-term, project based nature of the work (1-3 year post-doctorate work for example makes up a large segment of the STEM workforce).
Given these conclusions what are we to make of the unrelenting STEM driven educational reform drumbeat that continues to seize public discourse around school failure and economic recovery in this country? Moreover, how can corporate actors such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other STEM reliant industry leaders continue to have credibility in calling for hyper STEM focused education reform to be the centerpiece for addressing long term social/political problems associated with the so-called achievement gap and the overall growth of racial and economic inequality in this country? Michael Anft’s Chronicle of Higher Education article makes questions like these more relevant by emphasizing one of the most important findings in Teitelbaum’s study. In particular that “Most of the claims of such broad-based shortages in the U.S. STEM work force come from employers of STEM personnel and from their lobbyists and trade associations,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in science policy at Harvard University and a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Such claims have convinced some politicians and journalists, who echo them.” But if there truly were an across-the-STEM-spectrum labor shortage, Mr. Teitelbaum and others note, we’d be seeing an overall rise in wages in technology and science fields. And that isn’t happening”. One of the most important findings from Teitelbaum and Anft’s analyses of the STEM workforce data in terms of its impact on K-12 education reform is that STEM industry actors in fact benefit from the perception of a STEM workforce shortage in the U.S. and the reality of not having to pay higher wages for a relatively uncompetitive labor pool. But how could this be?
Here’s one way I offer to interpret the intersection of the STEM crisis myth and K-12 Neo-Sputnik school reform (and really K-graduate school) within the context of this new data. To start with, I think we have to ask the question of who benefits (profits) most from generating the perception of a STEM workforce crisis in the U.S.? There are many historical examples one could point to suggest a possible way to answer this question. One I would suggest comes from a classic early critique of industrial capitalism formulated by a man with an impressive beard and ability to sit for long hours at the British Museum Library in London. In his classic critique of capitalism, notably in Volume 1 of Capital, Karl Marx argued (and provided strong evidence on the subject) that one important developmental aspect of capitalist growth was the establishment of disciplining mechanisms (schools being an important one) in society capable of shaping the working class population within a competitive wage labor situation. That is, peasants and farmers didn’t just drop their rakes and ploughs and walk peacefully into urban factories—they had to be coerced and disciplined into a worldview where they (and in most cases were left with no alternative) had to accept their fate as competitive economic actors trying to survive on the new productive playing field brought into existence through industrial capital and wage labor.
One of the most effective ways workers were disciplined into participating in society as a competitive economic actor set against other workers who were also selling the only commodity available to them (their body’s energy as labor power) was, as Marx points out in Volume 1 of Capital, through the industrial owners/politicians actor network that governed laws such as the working day, amount of education child workers should be allowed, health and safety of workers, and minimum amount of pay. For any or all of these governing strategies over the working class in England (and other parts of the world) to work however there needed to be segmented groups of workers—populations of wage workers that could be pitted against one another to get around pesky work reform laws such as the limitation of the working day to 10 hours or a minimum amount of hours children had to spend in school. Marx of course named this phenomenon, the disciplining and creation of different segments of the working population, reserve, floating, and semi-permanent worker populations among other categories. The pattern Marx was onto that is important and relevant to understanding the STEM myth today and why schools play such an important role in it is that powerful economic industries always need to create and regulate working populations in order to maintain and maximize profitability and growth. If workers went on strike to increase wages in Birmingham or London, for instance, it was handy for factory owners to simply compel the reserve working class (or a surplus of workers) in nearby towns to work in the factory for what the owners wanted to pay or perhaps even drop wages (thereby increasing the golden egg of surplus value that originates from human labor). Having an escape valve to release the pressure of exploitative work relations, in other words, is part of how a capitalist economy is organized and regulated as Marx showed us 150 years ago in his analysis of industrial capital and the creation of surplus working populations. I think this is one important (if not the most) explanation as to why high-tech industry leaders in fields such as pharmaceuticals, biomedical, biotechnological, and information technologies have taken control of educational reform policy and based it upon the false premise of a STEM workforce labor shortage.
K-12 schools, as it turns out, are one of the most important and influential spaces in society that such a strategy can play out, one that is interested in producing not necessarily 21st century skilled workers but 21st workers that can be put into competition with one another. The STEM crisis in other words and the call for a total curricular overhaul to address this need should be read, I am suggesting, as a crisis in the reserve STEM working population—a role that has largely been filled by workers from other countries. What seems to be missing, and is what I see as one of the driving forces behind the STEM crisis myth, is the need to grow out a larger domestic surplus in the STEM workforce in order to increase the overall pool of available labor that can be set into competitive relation to each other. But the project to create and regulate a surplus population of STEM workers does not work exactly the same as it did during the industrial period of capital. As researchers (such as Kaushik Sunder Rajan and Melinda Cooper) who have looked at the nature of capitalism in its high-tech/biocapitalist phase have pointed out, production in “knowledge society” is largely based on some promissory or speculative future. Things like the next wonder drug, for example, are years down the road and investments need to be made now in order to realize their potential value or at least to participate in the high risk/reward economic gamble that many biocapitalist ventures are based upon. The domestic STEM workforce similarly is built on the same speculative bubble: the jobs will eventually come some time in the future and we (biocaptialist actors/policy maker networks) need to start building the promissory workforce to meet this perceived labor demand. Schools, in other words, have become a hedge fund site for the speculative needs of industries with an eye toward the future—one where a whole new standing and reserve army of workers needs to be created so profitability and growth can be realized. Instead of being held hostage by the speculative agents of the country’s educational future, shouldn’t we be focused on the present that is beset with real social and ecological crises like global climate change, water shortages, widespread environmental injustices in working class and communities of color or simply let communities decide for themselves what problems should be addressed? In our present moment the educational future is being decided by those who are focused on solving very different problems, and for them, all we need to do is fall in line to help our country recover by doing our part to stem the STEM crisis.