Do we need more STEM students?

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in flight. Source: NASA

That’s what a lot of people think. And as a science major myself, the husband of a science major, and the father of four science majors (so far), I certainly believe in the utility and importance of studying science in college. It helps students develop many important skills.

But some proposals to provide special encouragement for kids to study science seem misguided, like college-loan forgiveness or differential tuition rates. That will lead institutions to just game the system – like calling English majors “linguistic engineers.” Incentives are already out there for all to see: year after year, the top-paying majors are in engineering and science. The bottom-paying fields are social work, culinary arts, and child and family studies.

Sometimes an industry has a staffing challenge coming up and needs to take action to encourage, recruit, and retain qualified talent. This was the issue with nuclear power two decades ago. Nuclear power wasn’t “cool” — it’s where Homer Simpson works, after all — and the existing workforce was approaching retirement. But employers worked with universities, community colleges, unions, and the military to find good workers. Now nuclear engineering majors are among the highest paid graduates.

Such grass-roots initiatives are a lot more successful than massive programs. Big plans set up rigid rules that people can play with and distort to reclassify cooking into alimentary-engineering. Most of the money then gets eaten up by bureaucratic oversight designed to ferret out the abuse.

A compliance engineer. Source: US Forest and Wildlife Service

Employers know their staffing needs and pay wages and benefits that compete in the job market. That’s the most scientific recruitment tool there is.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA