STEM Imbalance

The current group-think is that undergraduate students should forego humanities (and most liberal arts) studies and instead major in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). That’s the only way to get a good-paying job in today’s technologically-oriented society. That assumption relies on another assumption: That employers will hire and retain STEM graduates over long periods of time. Neither assumption is good.

Firstly, private sector employers have always been ravenous consumers of new technologies that displace labor. There is always ample funds available for labor-displacing equipment, yet little funds available to hire even just a few people (or give workers a raise). I am confident that a significant amount STEM work can be computerized, and that large numbers of STEM graduates will be displaced by technology as capabilities improve.

Secondly, the emphasis on producing STEM graduates will someday result in an oversupply of STEM graduates (just as law schools have produced an oversupply of lawyers and business schools an oversupply of MBAs). That will, in turn, increase unemployment among STEM graduates and depress the pay of employed STEM graduates.

This change could come about in as little as 10 years, leaving many early- and mid-career workers unemployed or underemployed.

Colleges and universities that have re-organized themselves for STEM will likely find themselves with overcapacity for producing STEM graduates and undercapacity for producing graduates in the disciplines that computers lack capability. Wise are the administrators who assure adequate resources for humanities during this unique period in which it has fallen out of favor.

So, maybe it isn’t such a dumb idea to major in subjects that require uniquely human skills and capabilities such as synthesizing, interpreting, and analyzing information, (quantitative and qualitative), multivariate problem-solving (determining people’s reaction to a product or service or advertisement), and using creativity to design and implement improvements. And, don’t forget, computers cannot do kaizen – only people can. Some of the best kaizen practitioners have had humanities (and liberal arts) education. Maybe kaizen should be added to the curriculum.

Were I a university leader, I would want to assure that non-STEM disciplines don’t just survive this low period, but that they thrive.

“Balance” is a fundamental concept in Lean management. It guides management’s thinking on multiple levels, from short-term, tactical, day-to-day work activities to the long-term strategic. Without “balance,” mountains of waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness are created which, in turn, result in much higher consumption of resources. In other words, balance helps management avoid the time and expense associated with going up and down cycles (e.g. fads, business cycle, etc.). Additionally, balance helps people succeed over the long term.

Many university leaders and politicians are driving higher education towards an imbalance that I believe will end up do more harm than good. They will repeat the same mistakes made by leaders in many other industries, causing them to have to plan, execute, and pay for a recovery someday. That outcome, however, can be avoided.

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