The double edged sword of the internet revolution and the continued evolution of the internet as the primary vehicle of innovation is that it is democratizing and diversifying opportunity and success, but also creating a new class system that rewards hackers, engineers, coders, and programmers while ignoring the rest of us. I am grouping these specific careers under the broad umbrella of STEM fields, Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, and Mathematicians.
By the rest of us, I’m referring to those that choose different educational paths, mainly the liberal arts and social sciences. Political science, sociology, psychology, communications, history, philosophy, literature, and many other fields of study have attracted millions of students through the decades. College was and is meant as a period of life to explore interests and gather working knowledge of a specific subject. The problem lies in that in our modern age, that relies so much on computers and increasingly mobile technology and apps, many organizations, and now some politicians wrongly believe that unless someone can code or program, then they have no valuable skills.
On some levels this shift to valuing STEM fields is a positive and normative development, because engineers and programmers went to school (or taught themselves) a specific type of skillset that lends itself to success in this brave new world. After all, local, intranet, and internet computer and program use relies on, and is a product of, code. Many will argue that engineers and programmers rising to the top of modern businesses is just an example of the latest iteration of the system of meritocracy that we love in a capitalist society, and all of that is true. The downside of this, and it’s a significant downside, is that the message we’re sending out to the talented but non-STEM student is that your major/degree is useless. In addition we’re sending the message that the only thing that matters is technical knowledge. There is a serious danger in endorsing and promoting this type of message to young people and to society at large.
The liberal arts provide for, not only a well-rounded student, but a well-rounded adult in society. Historical context may be more important than ever as the world becomes even smaller and more connected. Understanding of complex issues of public policy can only be had from a background in the liberal arts and social sciences. Critical thinking skills and the ability to challenge your own beliefs are central to a liberal arts education, and like most things in life, these are acquired skills and maybe more importantly, a learned disposition. This is something you don’t get by concentrating on technical knowledge.
Anyone who has spent some time applying to white collar jobs in various industries and organizations in the United States may have noticed that increasingly the job openings are in engineering, programming, or related fields. It’s increasingly rare to find job opportunities that do not require some sort of data-driven background. Ten years ago HTML proficiency would be considered an added bonus to a job description, these days this is treated as a requirement for many positions.
I do not think organizations and industries know exactly the effect this is having on the workforce and the problem of youth unemployment specifically. The problem of youth unemployment is getting worse, and I suspect a large portion of the college graduates who cannot find work have liberal arts degrees. Contrary to what has become popular belief, this is not because they have no useful skills, but because businesses have not adapted the skills these individuals possess into their environment. A change in mindset is required, and rather than celebrating STEM fields at the expense of liberal arts and social science fields, we should be providing career opportunities for students with all educational backgrounds.
Instead of discouraging, or worse, ostracizing those who still wish to pursue liberal arts degrees we need to find creative ways of utilizing the specific skill sets these graduates offer. And while we can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore the increasing value of data analysis, programming, and engineering skills in the workforce; organizations should be open to training or providing tuition reimbursement as benefits to potential employees who wish to add to their skill set.
For those liberal arts and social science majors who are able to find work, even in their field, the starting pay is often much lower. While this has always been true, engineers and programmers have and will continue to take home greater pay, I fear the disparity is only increasing. If we continue to emphasize the value of STEM fields at the expense of all other fields we will create a permanent underclass within the middle class itself. And if the trend of underemployment continues we may see significant numbers of non-STEM field graduates struggling to even make it into the middle class.
If our mission is to stop the shrinking of the middle class, and reduce overall unemployment and underemployment, then we need to be finding ways to utilize the skills of non-STEM graduates in the workplace. And offering opportunities for them to prove they can be of value to organizations is the first step in stemming (pun intended) the tide of unemployment.