Is the STEM Bubble Set to Pop?

128018417If there’s one thing we’ve heard since the economic recession began, it’s that STEM careers are the key to security in an insecure world. We’ve been told that the global market needs science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers, and that people with these skills are able to find high-paying jobs anywhere. 

Because of this, and because of specialized educational programs designed to attract women and minorities to STEM fields, students interested in studying STEM have grown 20 percent in the past 10 years. The majority of these students complete programs in engineering or computer science, prompting the question: is the STEM bubble set to pop? Does the increased influx of graduates with STEM skills mean fewer jobs for more people?

Engineering and the Staffing Challenge
Here’s what we know: engineering recruiting companies are on the rise, working quickly to place candidates in available jobs. This implies that there is still an abundance of work for newly-minted engineers, and that STEM is still a path to a profitable and rewarding career.

PREMIUM CONTENT: Largest U.S. Engineering Staffing Firms and Market Share Analysis

However, reports from the front lines say differently. As early as 2009, major publications like Marketplace were hinting that the STEM bubble was about to burst, noting that many engineers were out of work due to companies’ decisions to outsource and offshore jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.1 percent of engineers are unemployed, up several percentage points from the 1.7 percent of engineers unemployed in 2006.

What can staffing agencies do to ensure that they continue to have both the resources and the candidates to place engineers in STEM jobs? Companies like Kelly Services, Peak Technical, and Experis (part of the Manpower Group) still achieve a high level of success in recruiting and placing engineers. Here’s what you need to know to match their successes:

  1. Do your research. This is key to maintaining success in placing engineers. You need to know which firms in your area are offshoring jobs, so you can send feelers to current workers about to be laid off. You also need to know which companies in your area are hiring, and what types of workers they’re going to need.
  2. Understand the terminology. Do you know what an electrical engineer does? How about a network engineer? How is a computer engineer different from a programmer? The more you know about the industry, the better prepared you are to quickly place candidates.
  3. Build relationships with companies. If you’ve done your research and learned specific engineering roles and skills, you’ll be in a position to start sending qualified candidates to local companies. As you do so, build a relationship with that company. Don’t look at a candidate placement as a one-time deal; instead, look at it as the beginning of a long-term relationship in which you provide the company with the best workers you’ve got.
  4. Look for non-traditional local sources. Hospitals need engineers. So do schools, law firms, banks, and nearly any company with a technical infrastructure. To help bring the engineer unemployment rate down, you need to find local businesses unlikely to offshore who still need engineering work.

Get up to speed with publications like Today’s Engineer, which runs articles on where the tech jobs are, as well as on what engineers want from staffing companies.

Science, Mathematics and Fewer Jobs for Teachers
Engineering, of course, is not the only STEM field, so here’s what we know about the others: students seeking careers in science and mathematics need graduate degrees before beginning research. Graduate programs, therefore, are still going strong; but the glut of science and mathematics PhDs means there are very few teaching or research positions to go around. (This is true throughout all of academia, of course, as legacy tenure programs and the increase of contract-based adjunct positions means fewer permanent jobs for scholars in all fields.)

Meanwhile, science and math professionals looking to teach America’s children about the importance of STEM careers face even greater problems, as public K-12 education faces unprecedented budget cuts and teachers everywhere find themselves out of work, or asked to support families on salaries so small that 62 percent of teachers have a second, part-time job.

Coding Jobs Still Require Years of Training
What about computer science, still regarded as the wave of the future? The phrase “everybody should learn to code” is on the lips of TED talkers, New America thinkers and plenty of online coding schools like CodeAcademy and Ruby School. Both programmers and the companies that hire them are pushing back, arguing that a few online classes in Python does not make you a computer programmer, and that real coding requires the oft-quoted 10,000 hours – equal to 5 years of 8-hour workdays – to become qualified to work as a computer scientist.

STEM jobs aren’t going anywhere – it’s clear that the modern world runs on engineering, computers and advances in science and mathematics. However, the myth that a STEM degree automatically leads to a secure, high-paying job needs to be shattered. Like most other fields, landing STEM jobs require a combination of skill, opportunity, and luck. Our job as staffing agents is to match up the three elements and place as many candidates as possible. Whether the STEM bubble grows or bursts, that part of our work remains the same.

MORE: The market for IT professionals hotter than ever

Sara Stringer
Sara is a former medical and surgical assistant who now does freelance business consulting. She enjoys blogging about her many career paths and helping others find their own direction.

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