Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

As college students return to classes this fall, many feel both excitement and apprehension about the future. After all, they are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars in education that they hope will lead to bright economic futures. Some probably feel pressure to pursue STEM degrees because they’ve been told that this will guarantee a good return on that investment. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hacker shows in a recent book review about education and high-tech work, there is clear evidence that this idea is wrong. Indeed, while those who tout the knowledge economy promote the idea that higher education is the key to economic opportunity, recent college graduates are having difficulty finding work, and many of the jobs they have found don’t require the kind of education they have. This led the Wall Street Journal to describe recent graduates as “Generation Jobless.”

Robert Reich thinks the problem is the result of businesses requiring only a small workforce of innovators and strategists He believes that over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work, including many with advance degrees. He predicts that corporations will continue to expand their use of algorithms to measure their value and develop spot-auction networks. Under this system, corporations would have a small number of core employees and would require others to bid on work opportunities. Using Apple as example, Reich notes that the company employs fewer that 10 percent of its 1 million employees who design, make, and sell their product. The rest are largely contingent workers.

But do the concerns of most college graduates apply to those earning STEM degrees? If you listen to business and higher education administrators, science and technology workers are in short supply. But Hacker finds that underemployment and joblessness include STEM graduates and employees. In reviewing a series of books concerning the need for high-tech talent, Hacker found that business and higher education leaders have greatly exaggerated the employment opportunities for STEM graduates. For example, he cites a National Science Board study that shows that of the 19.5 million STEM degree holders, only 5.4 million actually work in those fields. That suggests that extending STEM programs will probably not increase employment or lead graduates into better quality jobs. Hacker finds that employers blame the inadequate educational preparation of STEM employees, turn to low cost foreign workers, or increasingly replace workers with more technology. The result is increasing job insecurity even among STEM employees.

Put differently, despite claims that education is the path to better economic opportunity, workers in the knowledge economy are already and will continue to experience limited employment and economic mobility. Of course, this has long been the experience of the working class, and some would suggest that this is simply the proletarianization of STEM workers. But is it?

In his study of precarity, Guy Standing draws a distinction between prolitarianization and what he calls precariatization. He argues that proletarianization is the late nineteenth century historical term for the habituation of labor. The precariat, including STEM workers, are losing control over their time and the use of their capabilities, which represents a different situation than what the proletariat faced 150 years ago. Standing writes, that “the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations they [flit] in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.” In essence, the precariat can be seen largely as a class of contingent workers regardless of education level.

We see this already in “taskers,” as Standing wrote here last spring, but we should expect to see a similar shift for STEM workers. They will lose control over their time as they spend longer hours at work and more time looking for work. They will also experience increasing levels of job insecurity. Because unstable work opportunities rarely if ever include employer-financed insurance such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers compensation and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these workers will be deprived of economic benefits and government protections. Instead, they will have to take responsibility for their own employment costs — education and retraining, health insurance, and pensions. The changing work conditions disrupt more than just workers’ schedules or bank accounts. They also wreak havoc on workers mental health and personal lives. STEM graduates are not inheriting the economic future they envisioned. Some are learning tough lessons about the “race to bottom” and the experiences of the working class.

As I have said many times, deindustrialization and economic restructuring not only cost many people their jobs, they also undermined the stability of communities and made the American dream inaccessible for many working-class people. This has been clear for decades in places like Youngstown, which relied so heavily on manufacturing. The change is not only about technology replacing human work, the focus of a recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. It’s about the gap between claims about STEM education and the reality of STEM employment. The knowledge economy was supposed to bring a better future, especially for those who pursued the education necessary to enter the middle class, but as science, engineering, and technology jobs become increasingly contingent, the educated workforce is joining the working class and becoming part of the precariat. No wonder young people are worried.

John Russo
Visiting Scholar
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor
Georgetown University

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7 Responses to Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

  1. Fred Anderson says:

    I am unsure how much of these statistics it explains, but *most* people don’t work in the field for which they were trained.
    If we view college as job preparation / vocational training (rather than as broader education) — and most students do — then we will get the highest placement rates if we tailor that training to align with the entry level jobs. But if the employee is any good, he/she won’t stay in that entry level job.
    Thus many trained as say, engineers, will have been promoted into managing other engineers. They no longer do much engineering work; now their job is mostly about managing — esp., *people* management, e.g., work division, task assignment, training, motivating, coordinating, ceremony, etc. (We also need a lot of engineers in Sales — it’s tough to sell a tech product you don’t understand, and well nigh impossible to help the customer have a successful experience with it, if they buy.)
    As for the accusation of poor STEM teaching, that was not my experience (MIT, 1960’s). I suspect rather that the humanities are more emotionally involving — the instructor can lead heated discussions on the appropriate behavior of the Ferguson, MO police, for example. But the sciences are more objective and less emotionally involving (and appropriately so) — it would be weird, even absurdist, to have heated discussions on the appropriate energy level of electrons in a chemical bond, for example.


  2. Pingback: (846) STEM looking shaky |

  3. not-ty says:

    article is false, it depends on the idea that “if you do not do exactly what you are trained to do you had no choice and failed” ever heard of a career change? It happens in engineering. Lot of 40 something year olds decide to do something else. What you should look at is the post graduation employment rates. Well, you wouldnt do that because it would disprove your article.

    Also Marxism has been dead for decades, get with the times.


    • Jack Labusch says:

      not-ty, thanks. ” . . . Marxism has been dead . . . .” Sure–ditto market capitalism. K Street exists because gaming the rules works. See, e. g., public choice theory, or Elihu Root’s characterization of how “invisible government” in NY State really worked.


  4. I always assumed that humanities students can’t find jobs…So what should working-class STEM students do to increase their chances of employment when there aren’t many jobs out there in the economy? Going for a master’s or even a PhD may not be the best solution. What about taking as much internship opportunities as possible while in college?


    • Fred Anderson says:

      I agree with your intuition that more education may not be the best solution (esp., avoid the PhD unless you want to be an academic).
      One sees complaints from employers that college level training is too abstracted & theoretical / not sufficiently practical. If that has some truth in it — and I think it does — then, yes, internships are a good idea. Also, seek out the adjunct professors — especially the ones who have day jobs in the industries you’re interested in. And seek out those of your regular professors who’ve had substantial work experience in industry (although these tend to be exceedingly rare, in my experience).


  5. Roy W Wilson says:


    Excellent piece. Of course, there will be extensive, ever more precise, stratification of STEM workers by whatever criteria are sufficient to thin the herd.

    Reminds me of the novel PLAYER PIANO by Kurt Vonnegut, written (I believe) while he was at (our Alma Mater) Carnegie Mellon University.


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