Is there really a shortage of STEM workers?

February 6, 2012

Every so often, this question pops up and the debate begins again – do we have too many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers, or not enough?  Some people say that scientists are having difficulty finding jobs, so we must be creating too many scientists.  But there are still lots of places where technical expertise is needed, so obviously we’re not creating enough scientists.  Which is true?  A couple of recent reports have looked into the issue, and added more fuel to the discussion.

The first one, the STEM Report, was released by Georgetown University in October 2011, and argues that there really is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States, but not for the reasons traditionally cited.   These authors concluded that “innovation and technology change have led to the demand for STEM competencies beyond traditional STEM occupations”, and the deeper problem is a broad scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.  They postulate that domestic STEM talent is moving into non-STEM occupations because the core cognitive STEM competencies are becoming increasingly valued in non-STEM occupations that are highly-paid, prestigious, and more in line with worker’s interests and values.  Workers leak out of the STEM pipeline at all stages, after they have acquired varying levels of proficiency in STEM competencies.  For example, only 19% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree do so in a STEM field, and only about half of those actually work in a STEM field after college.  After 10 years post-graduation, only 8% are still working in a STEM field.  The authors of this report argue that the vacated positions have in recent years been filled by foreign-born STEM students, who are more likely than non-STEM students to remain in this country and become STEM workers.

The second report recent report is entitled “Jobs Americans Can’t Do:  The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage”, and was published in November 2011 by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  This is a group that advocates for immigration policy reform, and not surprisingly their report concludes that “U.S. tech companies are cutting wages by discriminating against qualified American workers”, and that “there is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States”.  In fact, they find that the “glut of science and engineering degree holders has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields”, and foreign-born scientists who are willing to “work for smaller wages” are taking jobs away from native-born workers.

Even though the reports come to different overall conclusions, both agree that STEM-trained workers overall are leaving their field in large numbers, at all stages of their careers.  (They also agree that the academic market for PhDs in STEM areas is weak.)

However, the first report believes that the competencies of STEM workers are highly valued in non-STEM occupations, so workers are being pulled into lucrative careers elsewhere, and we should train more workers to fill both the STEM and non-STEM markets with technically trained professionals.  The FAIR report believes that the influx of foreign-born students and scientists has flooded the market, depressing wages and forcing STEM workers out and into other fields.  Specifically, what is it that makes STEM-trained workers so valuable?  The core competencies specifically identified in the Georgetown University report include critical thinking, complex problem solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, problem sensitivity (the ability to tell when something is wrong or likely to go wrong), systems analysis, and many others.  While we may learn these skills in a research lab, or hone them in a manufacturing plant, they are applicable to a wide variety of industries and job fields, both technical and non-technical.  I encourage you to check out the list, and think about which of these competencies particular strengths are for you, and which ones you might be able to add to your resume.

Regardless of which interpretation is you might agree with (and does it really matter?), the bottom line is that STEM-trained workers are valued in non-STEM fields, and that value is increasing over time.  It also means people trained with a STEM background have more options when looking for employment, which I think everyone will agree is a good thing.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Preparing for a Career Fair

March 15, 2010

A career fair is a great way to talk to employers, find out what’s going on in your industry, and advance your professional agenda.  It is free and open to all ACS members who are registered for the national meeting. If you plan to participate, check out the tips below on how to make the most of this opportunity.

Before You Go

To get the most out of the career fair, you should register now, so employers can search your information. Once you are registered, you can post your resume, browse  jobs and request  interviews.

You need to have clear idea of what you’re looking for in a job – an objective that you can state in 1-2 sentences (like the objective on your resume) when you meet new people.  You may have more than one, if you’re open to multiple types of positions. If you do, make sure to communicate the right one to the right people.  Know what you must have in a new position, what you’d like to have, and what you can live without.

Research which companies will be in attendance at the fair, and learn as much as you can about them.  You may be surprised where the opportunities are.  Don’t forget to look at speakers in technical sessions, and identify ones to whom you want to talk.  Not just chemical companies, but personal care products, food, small companies, federal government, etc. all hire chemists to do all sorts of things, so investigate all opportunities before you go, and make note of the ones in which you are most interested.

Getting Ready

Pack a large stack of  business cards and 20 copies of your resume, and know where the copy center is in case you need more.  Pack for the weather where you are going, and of course, dress professionally.

At The Fair

During the Fair, you should check your account regularly for updates, and keep in touch with employers who contact you.

Once you are on-site, there will be lots to do.  On a walk-in basis there will be workshops on a variety of career related topics, including Targeting the Job Market, Resume Preparation, Effective Interviewing, First Year On the Job, Proposal Writing, and so on. You will also be able to sign up for a 30 minute personal resume review, or for a mock interview with an ACS Career Consultant.  Sign up early, as all slots usually fill, and you can sign up no more than one day ahead of time.

Monday morning at 9:30 am there will be a welcome mixer for candidates and employers.  This will be a way to mix INFORMALLY with both employers and other candidates.  This is not a place to ask for a job, but a place to talk with employers and find out what they are looking for in general (technical skills, interpersonal skills, etc.), what the market is like, and so on.

What to Expect

If possible, have a mock interview before you start real interviews, to identify and fix any problem areas.

If you are scheduled for a real interview, do much more research on the company.  Make sure to be on time (which means 10 minutes early), and allow for travel time.

To begin, shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and introduce yourself.  Sit down after invited to do so, or after the interviewer does. Throughout the interview be positive, don’t interrupt, and avoid nervous habits.  Listen to what they have to say, as well as telling them about yourself.

Be prepared to talk about your research for a 5 minute mini-seminar, with a flow sheet or diagrams handy to guide the discussion.

At end stand up, shake hands again, thank them for the interview, and ask them for their business card.

Afterwards

Make sure to send a thank you note, most likely an email before the end of the national meeting. Follow up with the company if you haven’t heard from them in 2-3 weeks, to let them know you’re still interested.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).


Too Many Scientists?

November 2, 2009

A recent report has been causing a lot of controversy in the blogosphere.  “Steady as She Goes?  Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” looked at three issues – the attrition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students from high school to career, how this attention rate has changed over time, and changes in quality in the students who remain in the STEM pathways.  They evaluated several longitudinal data sets, and determined that retention rates have been constant (or even increasing) from the 1970s through the late 1990s overall, but retention of the highest performing students declined steeply starting in the late 1990s.  The authors suggest the reason for this is that high-performing students are “being recruited into non-STEM jobs that pay better, offer more a more stable professional career, and/or are perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies”. They argue that encouraging more students to go into STEM disciplines may end up hurting the US, since more potential employees mean lower wages, which drives the best students into other fields.

This report is generating some discussion on ScienceCareers.org, in the thread entitled Study Agues US Needs Fewer, Not More, Science Students .  This thread also points back to the  National Academies’ publication Rising Above the Gathering Storm report (2006) which said the nation should “enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics” in order to remain competitive. Many others have echoed this idea, and the idea of expanding the science pipeline has been guiding policy for awhile – just the opposite of what the newer study suggests.

Part of the reasons these two reports seem to oppose each other is that it is difficult to get actual numbers and hard data on why people choose the career paths they do.  I can think of a number of things that influenced my personal career choices…..a family background in science and engineering, a great high school chemistry teacher who made science interesting and fun, a new class that I just happened to be in the right place to take, personal and family circumstances, and a whole lot of luck.  While I may have considered (briefly) law or business for the financial rewards, I was always encouraged to do something I loved, and not worry about the money (within reason).

In my own travels, I think lately I’m meeting more people who want to do something they are passionate about, and care more about that than making as much money as possible.  They want to make a difference in the world, and as long as they can make a reasonable living they are fine.  Some of them are even choosing to work for less money, if it means more flexible work time and more time with their family, or taking extended time off to be with their families, and planning to go back to work at some point in the future.  I’m hoping this means people are realizing that they can be happy with fewer “things”, as long as they spend their days doing things that interest, excite and engage them.  Hopefully for many of us, that includes STEM careers.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.


Resume Don’ts from Hiring Managers

July 27, 2009

I have been doing some research lately that has involved talking to a number of hiring managers in various scientific industries. In doing so, I have collected a list of a few things they don’t like. In some cases, these small things are enough to knock you out of the running for a position, no matter how good your technical qualifications are. Here, in no particular order, are things that have been mentioned to me.

Resume Portfolio

In the sciences, your “resume” is really more of a resume portfolio. It should include a cover letter, a resume customized for the particular recipient, a research summary, a patent/publication/presentation list, and perhaps other documents that the employer has requested. Depending on the type of employer, this may include a list of references, management philosophy (for senior industrial positions), teaching philosophy and research proposal (for academic positions), and so on. While the resume itself should only be 2 pages, all the supplemental material can bring the page count significantly higher.

For hiring managers, having all this information at the start of the process is a big plus. If they’re interested in you, they can dive right into the details instead of having to wait for more information. Having it electronically is also an asset – this makes it much easier to store and access from multiple places than paper copies.

However, if each piece is a separate document, this significantly increases the amount of overhead required to open and print each file, not to mention keeping them together and making sure each one has been read. Putting all the information in one file – with clear headers and delineations, makes it easier for the recipient to keep it together, not to mention being able to print and search the whole thing easily.

One hiring manager mentioned getting a resume in which the objective was a particular type of position in the pharmaceutical industry. That would be fine, except her organization is not in that industry – in fact, it’s a government agency and not an “industry” at all. She says she often gets resumes/cover letters that talk about wanting a position in “industry”, and those go directly into the trash can. After all, if you can’t be bothered to check the details on something as important as your resume, how can she expect you to be careful with details on the job?

I have often said that my claim to fame is that in the 15+ years I have been a volunteer consultant, I have never seen a resume in which I could not find at least one typo. Sometimes it’s just something that looks like a typo (for example, a strange formatting choice), but that’s almost as bad. Having a typographical error in your resume is another way to get a quick trip to the trash can…who wants to hire someone who does not pay attention to detail on something as important as their resume?

Always make sure to have someone other than yourself read your resume carefully. Pick someone who has an excellent command of the English language, whose opinion you trust, and who will give you honest feedback without worrying about hurting your feelings. Only that way can you make sure you are putting your absolute best effort forward, and have the best possible chance to obtain the job of your dreams.

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).


Where are the Chemists? And Where Should You Be?

January 25, 2009

I start each morning by scanning blog headlines, and reading the articles that spark my interest.  One of the chemistry-related blogs I read recently began: “I’m going to write this morning about a question that actually came up among several of us at the train station this morning. I’m on a route that takes a lot of people into Cambridge, so we have a good proportion of pharma/biotech people on board. And today we got to talking about ……” .  

While the technical subject matter of the post was interesting, it was that lead-in that really caught my attention.  I wonder how many professional conversations happen on those trains, and how many connections are made?  Simply by being in a place where chemists are on a regular basis, these commuters are significantly increasing their odds of making valuable professional connections.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Can you put yourself in a place where you can be more easily found, and make connections with others in your profession?  

If you live in an area where mass transit is available, identify stations near centers of high tech or chemical industry. If your regular route takes you through them, start noticing others who ride that route on a regular basis – maybe one of them is carrying a copy of Chemical and Engineering News?  How hard would it be to strike up a conversation by asking if they read the article about ….?  You’ll quickly be able to tell if they’re open to a conversation, by the tone of their voice and their body language as they answer your questions.  The shorter their answers, the shorter your conversation should be. If you both ride on a regular basis, you can build up a relationship slowly over time.

If you don’t take mass transit on a regular basis, can you make other small changes in your routine – for example, work at a coffee shop near a potential employer instead of near your home, or have lunch in a deli near a chemical company?  Especially if you become a “regular” at some of these places, you will become familiar with other regulars, some of whom are bound to work at the nearby chemical companies.  

For example, in my area there is a deli very near a major chemical employer.  During a recent lunch there, a collegue and I were chatting about science, careers, and so on. As we were leaving, a gentleman who had been working at the next table stopped me and said that he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation, and he wondered if I could give him some advice about a project with which he was having trouble.  Of course I was happy to help him out, and gave him some ideas, pointers to some web sites, and my business card. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from him again, but I’m glad he made the connection.  He got some valuable information, and I got to feel good about helping another person.  

I have also made great professional connections in airport boarding areas, and with people seated next to me on flights to and from national ACS meetings – who very often turn out to be chemists!

Companies do this too.  Check out the company that set up a taco truck across the street from a competitor who was having layoffs to woo potential employees.  

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this whole idea of putting yourself where other professionals are, being open to (and even initiating) is not new.  In fact, it even has a name…….networking.  

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This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)


Academia to Industry….or the other way around?

January 9, 2009

 

The January 5th issue of Chemical and Engineering News includes an article about the University of Michigan buying the recently closed Pfizer research facility in Ann Arbor, MI.  The property formerly housed about 2,000 pharmaceutical researchers, and  includes 30 buildings over 174 acres, and decades ago belonged to U of Michigan, who sold it to Parke-Davis, which eventually became part of Pfizer.  The university plans to use the acquisition to provide opportunities for industrial partners, and to that end has already hired 13 former Pfizer researchers.  They “expect to create at least 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years”.  The specific uses of the site will be worked out over the next year or so, but possibilities include expansion space for university researchers, partnering with or providing space for private sector businesses in pharmaceutical, biotech, energy, nanotech, and so on.  

This will not be an overnight process.  In 2007, Yale University made a similar move and purchased 136 acres housing 17 buildings that formerly housed the Bayer HealthCare complex.  So far, they have appointed Michael Donoghue as Vice President of Planning and Program Development.  Over the next three years he will develop the plan for use of the space, and add neighbors for the Institute for High Throughput Cell Biology which is currently located in the facility. Current plans include a mixture of high tech companies, research, and art.  

This is an interesting trend, especially in light of other workplace trends.  We know most chemists are now working for small companies, where they used to work for large companies. We also know that since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities are patenting their ideas, and collaborating with industry to commercialize them much more than they used to.  And now we see that universities are buying formerly commercial labs and using them to house their own research institutes, and to serve as incubators for new, small, high-tech companies.  

This is both good and bad news.  There is still lots of good work being done, it’s just being done in different places. It’s no longer enough to just look at large chemical companies when looking for a job.  Though they’re easy to find, they’re not where most of the jobs are. There are more places to look for work, so finding just the right fit will take more research on your part.  You’ll need to look at small companies, new technology areas, and maybe even academic institutions to find your ideal position.  

As an interesting aside, when I viewed the article on Pfizer selling the site, right next to it was a sponsored ad from Pfizer, advertising their positions available. So even within a single company, opportunities are moving around – changing location, specialty, area of study, and so on. Keeping abreast of, and hopefully ahead of, these changes is crucial to the long-term success of your career.

After all, we all know the only thing that is constant is change.

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 This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)



Persistence: 2009 Word of the Year

December 31, 2008

In many ways, 2009 will be a challenging year for each of us in terms of career management and development. Persistence will serve as the key to success.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

~ Calvin Coolidge

There is little that is certain about 2009 except that there will be discord in the financial markets. As a result, the workplace will continue to evolve into a new and more stable configuration. Among other things, the second law of thermodynamics states that energy naturally flows from areas of high to low concentration. Unless countermanded by a persistent external force the system will progress to a greater state of disorder—entropy. The governments of the world are currently amassing a response to the financial entropy that is rampant in global markets, but there will be no quick fix. All parties involved will need to doggedly and consistently pursue subsequent solutions to ensure our recovery and success.

Likewise, we must be persistent in our pursuit of personal success. We must be aware of the opportunities and the challenges looming in our future and we must position our selves to our best advantage. When seemingly insurmountable obstacles present themselves, we must either chip through them, tunnel under them, or jump over them. We must be persistent in our resolve to solve the situation.

Growing up in rural west Texas, most of my afternoons and weekends were spent working with my Dad on various outdoor projects. I credit my Mom for these experiences. Her core philosophy was that we could not mess up the house if we weren’t in it, and the chief weapon in her arsenal was a list of to-do items that was a mile long. As a result, Dad and I were in a state of perpetual motion. As it turned out, most of our projects included digging: digging a post hole, tilling a garden, or simply removing rocks from the soil so that plants would grow. In retrospect, I realize that many of my chores were busy work intended to keep me occupied and out of trouble. I also realize that digging was a free activity that could be accomplished with little supervision. But digging holes also taught me a lot about persistence. In west Texas the soil is poor. It is composed of caliches and gypsum. The only way to dig a hole is to chip your way through the calcite deposits found in the soil. Dogged persistence was the name of the game. At the end of the day, we almost always got what we wanted. Another hole would be dug, another fence pole installed, and for my Mom, the house would remain clean.

“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

By committing ourselves to a personal set of goals, we can be successful in the coming year, but there will be challenges. We must resolve to persevere, to find solutions that face our society and to overcome the barriers that we face in our professional lives.

Best wishes to you and yours in the year ahead!

David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Career Management and Diversity Programs at the American Chemical Society.