Why STEM Majors Opt Out of STEM Careers

By Barbara Frankel

Not enough college students are choosing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors — but even many of those who do get STEM degrees are not employed in STEM occupations.

A U.S. Census Bureau report found 74 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees in a STEM topic opt for non-STEM careers. Engineering, math and statistics majors had the most graduates going into STEM occupations (about 50 percent) while only 26 percent of physical science majors and 15 percent of biological, environmental and agricultural sciences majors worked in STEM jobs.

Others find jobs as managers at non-STEM businesses (22.5 percent) or are pursuing careers in education (17.7 percent), business/finance (13.2 percent) and office support (11.5 percent).

So why, given a growing national and global need for STEM jobs, are these early careerists opting for other professions? Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, noted in a Washington Post interview that STEM degrees are becoming “universal degrees.”

He said graduates with STEM degrees pursue jobs in areas such as supply-chain management, quality control and inventory control — all fields that require technical expertise but are not considered STEM jobs.

Many are promoted into management early in their careers, no long qualifying as STEM workers. Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow of the Brookings Institute, said many STEM majors work in managerial jobs because “that’s the natural outgrowth of success in their field.”

Discrepancies for Women and Minorities 

Women, who remain severely under-represented in STEM jobs, are those most likely to pursue non-STEM jobs when they have STEM degrees, the Census Bureau and academic studies have found.

Liana Christian Landivar, a sociologist employed by the Census Bureau’s Industry and Occupation Statistics, notes that, “We have seen an increase in women employed in STEM occupations, but they are still underrepresented in engineering and computer occupations that make up more than 80% of STEM employment. … The statistics show that women are less likely to major in engineering and computer sciences, which may reduce their STEM employment options unless they go on to graduate school.”

A survey commissioned by the Bayer Corporation two years ago of 150 recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies found that more STEM than non-STEM jobs were being created, and only half of those corporate leaders polled could find qualified people with four-year STEM degrees. Just 16 percent saw good numbers of qualified STEM candidates for two- and four-year degrees who were Black, Latino or Native American.

Convincing STEM Majors to Take STEM Jobs

A number of corporations, including Accenture and IBM, Nos. 15 and 22, respectively, on the DiversityInc Top 50, are working to encourage students to pursue STEM careers, and other new initiatives are also being implemented to convince STEM majors to pursue careers in their chosen fields.

For example, the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Science Foundation have started “MentorLinks: Advancing Technical Education” to help community colleges focus students on technical careers.

Many Top 50 corporations are exposing students early to STEM jobs as well as to the advantages of careers in these specific fields. A perfect example is EY’s Discover EY program, which brings Black, Latino and Native American college students to New York to spend time understanding how exciting accounting careers can be. EY is No. 4 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50.

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