Is there really a shortage of scientists, engineers, and computer scientists?

Is there really a shortage of scientists, engineers, and computer scientists?

You hear it in the news – the US has a shortage of people going into engineering, science, and high-end technical degrees.  We’re being trounced by the extrodinary graduation rates in developing contries and China/India.  Even Obama introduced his STEM education support program to encourage students into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (which he touted on his trip to our Intel site a few months back).

I was recently elected to Purdue’s Alumni Board for the school of Sciences.   During the last bi-annual meeting, we have a dean of one of the science schools come in.  This time it was the dean of the Geology dept.  He gave a great presentation on the interesting things they’re doing, but one of the most interesting points about his presentation was this: he gets calls all day long from companies and government agencies looking for geologists, but he has none to give them.  Currently the enrollment in geology at Purdue is around 150 students.  For ALL undergraduate levels.  Purdue has just under 30,000 total students, and only 150 are enrolled in undergrad geology.  He says he has jobs to give away, but nobody to fill them.  And they’re not all just for oil companies – government needs lots of surveyors, building ground inspections, erosion and terrain evaluation/etc.  Companies have all kinds of jobs too.

Surprised by this information, I went over afterwards to my haunt – the Computer Science department.  In talking to one of my old professor acquaintances over there,  I was surprised to find they were *just* reaching 200 undergraduates.  When I was in computer science in the last 90’s, there were 250 students and rising every year.  it turns out that enrollment plummeted right after the dot-com bust and has only recently started recovering.   Both of Dean of Geology and the CS professor independently cited 2 major reasons:  high-school curriculum focus and perception of job market.

First they both talked about the need for outreach programs.  The dean of Geology and the CS department appear to desperately want to get kids in High School interested in CS or Geology (I’d say most of the schools of sciences would also agree).  We all know that high school programs across most states have been getting chopped for years.  Their evaluation is that the constant budget chopping has seriously cut back on all their curriculum; but in science/math it’s had a particularly chilling effect.  Why?  Because schools under budget constraints tend to focus only on core-courses that are required for state accreditation, and cut everything else.  Computer programs are nice, but are expensive investments from a per-student basis.  My own high school only had a programming course because one math teacher wanted to teach it pretty much pro-bono and the machines were the ones use to teach typing/word processing classes.   Many science programs have cut back to just basic chemistry and biology.  So it’s no wonder that students that have had lack-luster, or simply no, high school experiences with sciences like geology or computer science.  Even fewer are inspired to look into or consider them as possible career choices.  In recounting my own experience of being a rural Indiana student of a high school with only 500 students; my professor friend said I was most certainly a huge exception.  Most rural students never see the insides of a Purdue science lecture hall, let alone even apply.

If anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, the Dean of Geology said that many states and oil/geology companies are becoming so desperate for geologists that they are starting to create their own high-school curricula for geology programs and giving them to high-schools for free; if only they agree to teach it.  Some of these companies have even considered also sending along someone to teach it – for free.

Secondly, there is a perception that the job market isn’t good for sciences.  For CS, there is apparently still a lot of stigma from the dot-com explosion.  During a lot of the later 2000’s there were tons of out of work programmers, and even though the tide is completely turned around, the perception is that there is still a glut of programmers and/or that it’s a difficult job market.  In Geology, there is a perception that one will have to work for an ‘evil’ oil company; not knowing there are tons of fascinating other job opportunities doing surveying, soil research, water erosion, earthquake prediction/prevention, etc, etc, etc.

These two points were big factors in their take on the situation.   So as a member of this board, what should one advise?  I did some of my own research, and will write about THAT next time. 🙂

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