$62,998… would you major in STEM for this starting salary?

Yesterday, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), released their January 2015 Salary Survey report, which showed that engineering majors are expected to be the highest paid graduates for bachelor’s degree students graduating this year.

That number in the headline? The average starting salary of new engineers, according to NACE.

If you knew that in your first year out of college you could make that kind of money, would you major in engineering?

Maybe, but maybe not – and it’s a shame.

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey - see http://www.naceweb.org/s01072015/engineering-majors-top-salary-class-of-2015.aspx

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey – see http://www.naceweb.org/s01072015/engineering-majors-top-salary-class-of-2015.aspx

What’s STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Salaries are high for these students right along with the demand for new STEM grads.

Here in the U.S. there is a significant shortage of STEM professionals. Some debate how significant the needs really is, but I can attest from personal experience that my husband, who is an engineer, is contacted frequently by recruiters and headhunters.

So how great is the need? Around this time last year Ira Sager explains in an article he wrote on the topic (“With a shortage of STEM graduates, Accenture hopes to grab them early“)  that I found on Businessweek.com. In the article, Sager quickly summarizes the situation:

Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade. … Currently the United States graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually. Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.” — quoting “a 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology”

So the number of new STEM professionals we need isn’t 50,000 or 100,000 people. We are talking about huge numbers of professionals when we start throwing around the word “million.”

Recently I have been talking with colleagues and friends about the reasons people do not pursue careers in STEM fields. Clearly money isn’t everything. In our conversation two myths stood out to us as potential reasons why people avoid STEM:  

1. STEM seems too hard. 

In my career consulting work I see how quickly students foreclose options that require math and science. It is such a shame. True, math and science ability is necessary for these fields but I believe many more students could persist through the required coursework with appropriate tutoring and support. What happens to a student in elementary and middle school sets the stage for their confidence in math and science and their concrete skills in these areas.

Since having greater exposure to friends in STEM fields I question whether I was too quick to foreclose these paths for myself. False beliefs can be one of the biggest challenges to student decision-making about major and career. I think this was certainly the case for me. I had a false belief that I wasn’t smart enough to hack it in math and science and I probably created my own self-fulfilling prophecy.

I may be right. In his great book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough, explains the impact mindset can have on performance when he highlights the findings of Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, who found that people have one of two types of mindsets – “those who have a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and other skills are essentially static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence can be improved.” She also found that those who think they can improve their intelligence actually do improve their grades (Tough, p. 97).

Maybe my mindset was too fixed.

2. STEM seems a bit boring. 

I can tell you right now this is not the case. Growing up I craved a career where I could help people and be creative. I never guessed a career in math or in technology could get me there. But I know understand the world differently at my age than I did at 16 or 21.

For me, it is true that my math and science classes were a bit boring. The concepts seemed abstract and the work seemed futile. I couldn’t understand how I could apply my learning to real-life situations that were relevant to people – the people I cared so deeply about. Engineers I talk with often say that the coursework you have to complete in engineering majors is surprisingly different from what it is actually like to be an engineer.

In engineering, you go to meetings with people, you may get in a lab or go out to do a visit on a project site, and you spend a good deal of time trying to think creatively and solve complex problems that impact people. Much more creative, enterprising, and connected work than I would have guessed… and anything but boring.

Still, what could change in math and science education that would expand the concepts beyond the calculations and help demonstrate, earlier on for students, the ways in which these concepts can be powerful tools to create amazing change in our world? Linking the sometimes tedious work of math or science to the big picture could be a big help for students on the margins.

Where to go from here? 

The significant demand for new STEM professionals is a national issue that needs greater attention. I understand that not every student will be interested in majoring in STEM. However, if fewer than 40% who are interested and start as STEM majors finish, more must be done to help these students find the academic and co-curricular support to thrive. We also must do a better job making it inviting for more students in to these fields.

As a career coach and higher education professional, I feel a responsibility to at least explore a bit with my students to see if they may be open to STEM, to challenge false assumptions students hold that may be barriers to them finding success and happiness in these fields, and to raise awareness about the realities of the occupations so many of us are quick to dismiss. I won’t try to steer students towards majors in math or science over art or history, but I will try to create space for the student to hold these STEM fields in their minds as possibilities for as long as is possible before they move along.

What are your thoughts about STEM? What assumptions do you have about the need for more STEM professionals in our country? Looking back at your younger self, would majors in science, technology, engineering, or math excited you? Why or why not? What can we do in higher education and in the K-12 system to make these possibilities more inviting to a greater and more diverse range of students in the coming years? 

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