Report

'All-hands-On' STEM Approach May be Overkill

It was bound to happen. A paper published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute suggested that the country may be putting too much emphasis on STEM and obscuring the "noncognitive skills" that are really needed, such as persistence and "character."

Research Fellow Brent Orrell, who focuses on job development issues, observed that the "rhetoric" of STEM "may be overdone" for a couple of reasons. First, those jobs make up a small portion of the whole workforce — 6.2 percent in 2015. As he noted, while STEM jobs are expected to grow faster than non-STEM positions, the growth is building from a small base, and federal projections "point toward slowdowns in growth."

Second, STEM employment sees a lot of turnover, Orrell wrote. One study from Harvard found that nearly six in 10 STEM graduates (58 percent) leave the field within a decade because their "credentials are no longer in demand."

Not that hard STEM skills "are unimportant," he emphasized; knowledge of math and science and engineering "will never go out of style." But the report proposed that the "most intrinsically human characteristics" will, in the end, matter the most among employers: flexibility, conscientiousness and social skills. The secret to "family-sustaining employment," Orrell advised, was a balance of technical and non-cognitive skills.

An online survey among employers found that they're seeking more than hard skills. Source: "It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success," from Hart Research Associates on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities

An online survey among employers found that they're seeking more than hard skills. Source: "It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success," from Hart Research Associates on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities

Orrell has chosen to promote the idea that the drop in "literacy, numeracy and skill acquisition" for the American worker is directly tied to the breakdown of the family structure, which came about, he wrote, when the number of divorces increased and the number of unmarried births "spiked."

His suggestion: that interventions focus — especially in low-income families and communities — on strengthening family formation, preventing divorces, improving early childhood education and helping adults in combining technical and softer skills to improve the labor market outcomes.

A one-page brief and the full paper are openly available on the AEI website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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