BusinessWeek’s Vivek Wadhwa thinks that fears that we’re falling behind in the sciences are misplaced. First a snide observation, but I’ll follow it up with some actual thoughts:

The call has been taken up by some of the most prominent people in business and politics. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, said at an education summit in 2005, “In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.” President George W. Bush addressed the issue in his 2006 State of the Union address. “We need to encourage children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations,” he said.

You ever get the sense that for a lot of people (myself included, I must admit) it’s not so much about their being too few science/math majors but rather there being too many liberal arts majors? I half consider talk like this to be the public policy equivalent of “Quit your band, cut your hair, and get a real job!”

So, there isn’t a lack of interest in science and engineering in the U.S., or a deficiency in the supply of engineers. However, there may sometimes be short-term shortages of engineers with specific technical skills in certain industry segments or in various parts of the country. The National Science Foundation data show that of the students who graduated from 1993 to 2001, 20% of the bachelor’s holders went on to complete master’s degrees in fields other than science and engineering and an additional 45% were working in other fields. Of those who completed master’s degrees, 7% continued their education and 31% were working in fields other than science and engineering.

There isn’t a problem with the capability of U.S. children. Even if there were a deficiency in math and science education, there are so many graduates today that there would be enough who are above average and fully qualified for the relatively small number of science and engineering jobs. Science and engineering graduates just don’t see enough opportunity in these professions to continue further study or to take employment.

This confirms my biases, so it absolutely must be true. Perhaps it’s because of the type of people I hang out with and maybe where I went to school, but I see a whole lot of mathematical, scientific, and engineering talent being underutilized. At the least, I see a whole lot more of that than I see companies unable to staff their payroll.

I think that part of the issue is big companies complaining that they don’t have the very specific skills that they need, rather than that their aren’t enough math people out there. The cause of this is not too many people majoring in Comparative Folk Dancing (though too many are) but rather the fluctuation in demand. My brother majored in aeronautical engineering despite being warned by everybody not to because there was such a surplus. By the time he graduated enough of his peers had listened that he was quite in demand… and a new generation of future engineers were being told to start majoring in aeronautical engineering… and round and round we go.

Some of this is unavoidable. Who knows what we’ll need five years from now? Things are always, always, always changing. But some of it is the expectation on the part of employers that they get their employees already trained and ready to start on the first day. For a variety of reasons (not all unreasonable) they don’t want to train. In some cases, they’d rather import talent from abroad that already knows exactly what they need to know.

I have many not-very-nice things to say about my former employer Bregna, but one of the things that they did that I really respected was that they were looking for good people (as they defined it, anyhow) rather than people that had all the right skills. It helped that they primarily used an obsolete programming language and that this was determined in part by necessity, but even so they had the right idea. They’re not requesting people have just the right experience with Fortran… they’re requesting that people have demonstrated that they have the ability to learn it.

As someone with a lot of experience in a lot of different areas but always falling short of the “__ years experience required in _______” threshold, this is an issue of importance to me. I’m biased, but I think that employees like me are great. I’m a utility infielder with the demonstrated ability to learn just about anything given the time. But alas, people like me (even ones that are smarter, more ambitious, and more reliable) are frequently overlooked.

I wish that undergraduate majors were a lot more broad than they are. In my mind, graduate school ought to be the area for specialization. This is something that I think the medical field does right. Clancy came out of medical school with a broad education and from that she chose her specialization (which turned out to be broad, too, but by her own choice).

Category: Office, School

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2 Responses to “Overspecialize And You Breed in Weakness”

  1. Peter says:

    This sort of reminds me of Half Sigma’s famous posting on why a career in computer programming sucks (which is still getting comments after several months).

  2. trumwill says:

    Yeah, working in the IT sector either helps you notice the problem or distorts your view of it, depending on your perspective. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to get into development despite having some skills and experience and having a track record of being able to learn is that I don’t come in with an expert’s knowledge of any particular language. I do know my way around SQL, but even then they want a lot of experience in specific environments so even knowing the language isn’t enough. I also have done some XML work, but that was mostly because it was too new for them to demand people with a lot of experience in it. Not that that doesn’t stop some from trying. Any IT person that’s looked for work can tell you of job descriptions they’ve looked at that require more experience than the language has been in existence (or at least on the radar).

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