A nationwide push toward STEM education could be a huge mistake. While careers in STEM fields currently boast the highest-paying positions that many companies are scrambling to fill, the educational focus on technical skills over broad-based learning could yield unintended adverse consequences.
This myopic focus on STEM education is a bet placed on projected future value based on current results. However, any finance major could tell you past performance does not determine future results. Just because a coveted job in technology has been and continues to be highly valuable, doesn’t mean there’s a guarantee that it will in the future.
When people think of STEM degrees, they think of high-paying jobs almost exclusively in technology, but STEM encompasses science, engineering and math, too. Most people focus on technology and engineering for the singular reason that it pays to be in those fields.
However, an important distinction is needed between STEM fields due to such a wide salary gap between STEM field occupations. Software engineers, for example, are paid a median salary of $100,000, while astronomers are paid a median salary of $42,000.
Today’s lower demanded and salaried STEM positions in science and math are not labor market concerns for politicians and companies. Few anticipate future unemployment lines wrapped around the block looking for work in astronomy or geometry. Experts are more worried about labor shortages in high-paying, highly innovative fields such as computer science, which could cost the economy billions to trillions of dollars in lost GDP growth over the coming decades.
Governmental or corporate sponsorship isn’t the primary motivator for most incoming students choosing STEM degrees. Any informed student doesn’t need much encouragement to choose a STEM degree for the best reason there is to get one: it pays.
College is expensive, and working in the technology sector pays off loans quickly. Incoming students seek to maximize their return on investment, so they are naturally choosing a degree in computer science or civil engineering over one in fine art.
The concern should be more over structural unemployment rather than a labor shortage, but people aren’t thinking about the labor market decades from now when companies replace human cognitive technical skills with artificial intelligence’s cognitive technical systems. A data miner could one day go the way of the coal miner into near obsolescence.
Which begs the question — what good are technical skills acquired from a STEM degree now, if they’ll be obsolete within a few decades? It’s a less alluring career option if you’ll be out of work by the age of 45.
Hopefully, there will be a job training safety net to return displaced technology workers to employment, but what if there isn’t?
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban argued that if AI will soon be able to program itself to automate both algorithmic and cognitive tasks predominately within STEM fields, then what good would a degree in these fields be worth if human skills are no longer needed?
Instead, a degree in the humanities may be worth far greater because it teaches abstract logic rather than concrete skills. Nontechnical skills are harder to automate. Thus, choosing a degree in the humanities may be worth far more in the future when tech companies begin looking to hire outside of computer science.
Undoubtedly, the present value of a job in either the field of technology or engineering seems like a sure bet for well-paid career choices. For American employees holding a bachelor of science in a STEM field, an entry-level position pays roughly $14,000 more in salary on average than a position in humanities or liberal arts.
However, specialized labor could soon be a thing of the past. To shield careers from artificial intelligence’s inevitable displacement of technical work, there should instead be a nationwide educational refocusing on broad-based learning. While it may seem counter-intuitive now, I wouldn’t write off getting a degree in the humanities just yet.
Patrick Gagen is a 21-year-old mass communication and finance senior from Suwanee, Georgia.