STEM is overrated — why we shouldn’t be pushing everyone to get a degree in science

People love STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The New York Times wrote an article earlier this year talking about efforts to incentivize people to pursue STEM fields and stay away from liberal arts.

It passes the conventional wisdom test. In a time of rapid accelerating change and more technology, we surely need more people going into these jobs right?

It turns out that STEM alone is not the perfect path to jobs in growing fields with good wages. Research by David Deming has shown that more importantly, social skills, are a leading indicator of fields of jobs that are growing and paying higher wages. His research looked at two factors — how math intensive the job was and the level of social skills required for the job (full paper here). His results found a clear hierarchy of the jobs that have been growing in the economy:

He found a similar pattern for wage growth, except with less of a gap between different types of high social skill jobs. In his research he found that many “STEM’ jobs are actually shrinking, which throws into question any policy aimed at incentivizing people to major in said degrees on that basis alone. While nobody would be surprised to learn that computer science jobs have been growing, many STEM jobs have not fared as well such as biologists and architects:

Source: David Deming

Deming discussed these findings in a fascinating podcast with Jacob Morgan and I was left with more questions than answers about what we should be doing given these findings. Deming’s own paper leaves the questions of policy to others, but his research challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom over the past fifteen years. Pushing someone to major in engineering may not be the path to a success that it was in the past.

One positive from this research is that one could make the argument that humans will not be replaced by technology as many are prone to fear. As technology automates more and more routine tasks, the value of highly cognitive and social tasks seems to be increasing. Deming’s research found that as routine tasks are decreasing, non-routine analytical tasks and social skills are becoming a higher and higher share of knowledge jobs:

Source: David Deming

So should you drop out of engineering and change to a degree in communications? I’m not sure I would go that far — but a STEM degree alone is not the path for a vibrant career that it may have been in the past.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.