Saturday, September 11, 2010

Genteel Majors

I am feeling somewhat better, but not able to sit up for very long.  I've been meaning to blog about this for the past two years, but never got around to it.

Today, I read several pieces that jogged my memory.
I don't see much evidence of journalistic detachment in any of the three pieces; they all have their ax to grind.  They are worth reading anyway.

Blogging doesn't require any detachment or coherence, so I will begin with a couple of stories.

While dining on my own at the AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting in San Francisco, I noticed that a man at the next table was also dining solo.  I asked him if he would like to share a table and entrees and split the check.  That way, we could sample more dishes.  He agreed. Because there was a wait for tables, the restaurant waived their 'no split checks rule' to free up another table.

He was attending the biomedical conference that was also at Moscone center that week as an exhibitor.  I enjoy hearing stories and he had a good one.

He had majored in engineering and then rose through the ranks to become the US manager of a multi-national medical equipment company.   He employed about a hundred engineers and technicians.  Their division was modestly profitable, but they had to hustle to remain profitable in a competitive field.

He earned enough to live in a nice east-coast suburb and afford for his wife to work full-time as a stay at home mom.  He estimated that, through his kids' schools and activities, he knew about 100 other dads well enough to know their occupations.  Only six of them were in businesses that made or fixed stuff.  He counted in that six plumbers and mechanics that owned their own businesses (and earned enough to live in that suburb).  The rest of the dads worked in the service sector, mainly in financial services.

That is one anecdotal statistic, but it is a shocking one.  It shocked him, which is why he made it a kind of mission to find other dads "who make stuff".

One of the highlights of our last Lair week was meeting a pioneer in my graduate field of study.  He was the first guy who applied Liouville's theorem to the study of chemical reactions in phase space.  While we both found theoretical chemical physics very intellectually satisfying, it's not a very lucrative field.  ;-)

Like a secret society, we exchanged stories about how we currently earn a living.  He parlayed his math skills into other, more lucrative, fields and made some sound investments.  That allowed him to live in a very expensive neighborhood.

We discussed how few of the college students we meet seem to be majoring in technical subjects that require math.  He said that, among his neighbors in genteel SF society, there was a prejudice that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors are for immigrants and not something worthy of their children.  I can't afford to live in that kind of neighborhood or hobnob with those people so that was a revelation to me.

So maybe David Brooks was on to something.

The CNNMoney article covers some of the same territory.
The top 15 highest-earning college degrees all have one thing in common -- math skills. That's according to a recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks college graduates' job offers.

"Math is at the crux of who gets paid," said Ed Koc, director of research at NACE. "If you have those skills, you are an extremely valuable asset. We don't generate enough people like that in this country."
That article ends with some shocking statistics:
What happened to well-rounded? There are far fewer people graduating with math-based majors, compared to their liberal-arts counterparts, which is why they are paid at such a premium. The fields of engineering and computer science each make up about 4% of all college graduates, while social science and history each comprise 16%, Koc noted.
First off, I would like to take issue with the implication that STEM majors are not well-rounded people.  If you are a history major who reads as much math for fun as I read history, then I would like to invite you home for dinner.  ;-)

I am aware that our nation is not graduating as many students in STEM fields as our economy requires, but are the numbers as lopsided as that?

I went to the National Center for Educational Statistics 2009 Digest Tables.  The most recent year for which they have data is 2007-2008.  Check out Table 271. Bachelor's degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2007-08. Or 1970-2011.

In 2007-2008, 1,563,069 bachelor's degrees were conferred; 68,676 in engineering; 38,476 in computer and information science; 161,485 in social sciences and history.  4% of 1,563,069 is 62,523. But how did 161,485/1,563,069 become 16% each in social sciences and history and 32% total? I get ~10% for the two fields combined.

If you have time to kill, read Tables 302-319, degrees conferred in specific major fields of study for each year from 1970-2008.  While the number of bachelor's degrees increased 86% from 839,730 to 1,563,069, the number of STEM majors has been flat or declining in both percentage and absolute terms (especially in math). In the same period, the number of journalism and communications majors increased 750% from 10,802 to 81,048. Too bad the ones employed at NACE and as fact-checkers at CNN can't do arithmetic.


  1. I read the Brooks article the other day as well and it rang as true to me as it apparently did to you.

    I've pondered on similar themes myself, since high tech though my job can be, solving problems often devolves to relearning basic manufacturing principles. But who will make our stuff or innovate new manufacturing practices when we've finally stepped past the critical threshold of lost tribal knowledge? Among subdisciplines in engineering, manufacturing isn't sexy, but it's where the rubber meets the road in terms of applied engineering know how. If you've lost the engineering know how to design a product it may be a long time after that when you also lose the manufacturing know how to build that product. But it will happen - I see it all the time.

    We all may all be blithely going into a future where our country's manufacturing core is blindly following recipes and when they lose the recipe there may be no one around with know how to redesign the product. This happens now. I've seen it repeatedly and helped many companies recover their design engineering. But what if one day we can't recover? What then?

    My meandering point seems to be converging on this: that we learn by doing. If we're doing less and less design, then some day the wheels are going to come off the manufacturing wagon and we won't be able to call up a US-born design expert to put them back on because all the experts in making widgets will be in China or Malaysia. The same will happen if there's a sudden national priority that requires design talent. At that point I guess we'll all become purchasing agents and arrange to buy our widgets elsewhere.

  2. I can't even begin to comment on all of this. I don't see how we can be at the intellectual pinnacle of production if we lose the ability to make the things we design. Design is not completely abstract. And yes I read the Akron commenters, including the one who can't find qualified engineers, a problem I was all to familiar with years ago when I was working. I assume it has not gotten any easier, only worse.

    As to the anecdotal story about genteel society not going into STEM careers, I would say that feeling is echoed here pretty accurately. I can't afford that kind of neighborhood either, but I see it nonetheless among my husbands ex-colleagues and their children, and their more expensive neighborhoods. They strive to get their kids into a lifestyle above their own, and discourage them from science, math, or medicine as too much work for too little payout, even if the children are mathematically inclined.

    And I know more "well-rounded" STEM people than I do liberal arts majors. This is especially true of the communications majors I know.