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Science Careers Blog

January 2, 2013

Getting Clear on Scientist Unemployment Rates

Florida's Governor Rick Scott has proposed giving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors a break on tuition at state universities on the theory that those fields provide great career opportunities and that more STEM  graduates will boost the economy.  But, "More STEM degrees may not equal more jobs," reports Michael Vasquez in a generally thoughtful article published in the Miami Herald on 8 December--despite a couple of cheap shots directed our way.

In March, we reported, with the sedate (and accurate) headline "Record Unemployment Among Chemists in 2011," on the results of the American Chemical Society's highly regarded annual employment survey.  (Vasquez alleges that the headline "screamed.") The Chemical & Engineering News article that we referenced reported, as did we, that the 2011 figures were the highest ever recorded in the survey's 40 year history.  We judged that this justified the phrase "record unemployment."

Vasquez, however, unhelpfully notes that these figures are lower than the overall national unemployment rate--which includes everyone from burger flippers who dropped out of high school to people who spent many years earning advanced degrees in very difficult--and supposedly in-demand--subjects.  Meaning no disrespect to employees of burger emporia: Shouldn't people with high-level technical skills acquired over years of demanding study be in greater demand than people with few marketable skills? 

As Vasquez failed to note, the rates of unemployment that ACS reported are roughly twice the rates of unemployment prevailing before the great financial crash of 2008. As regular readers of our blog may recall, we have more than once quoted labor market expert Ron Hira to this effect. Vasquez also interviewed Hira, but apparently did not ask the obvious and central question: How unusual are the reported unemployment rates for scientists?  According to ACS, they are very unusual.

Otherwise, Vasquez's piece is a useful and welcome corrective to the "widely held view that the United States--and Florida--suffer from a critical shortage of qualified STEM graduates." 

None of this means, of course, that majoring in STEM isn't a good idea.  Unemployment among scientists, though at historic highs, is still lower than in a number of other fields.  And STEM fields provide outstanding intellectual training that equips graduates for success in a  broad range of careers.  Still, students should not go into STEM program expecting that employers will instantly snap them up because of some non-existent shortage.

Thanks to Bob Johnson for bringing the article to my attention.

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