STEM Shortages, Purple Squirrels, and Leprechauns

That is the third in a collection of articles that began with The Arithmetic of the Ph.D. Glut. This text discusses claims of STEM employee shortages in non-public business and the way particular work-experience based mostly abilities are confused, deliberately or not, with basic science and arithmetic taught in faculties and universities.

One typically encounters claims of a scarcity of STEM (Science, Expertise, Engineering, and Arithmetic) employees in america. This typically seques into arguments for extra STEM schooling, instructing, college students, and particularly Ph.D.s in these fields. Certainly, the present Nice Recession has been blamed on a “abilities hole” by which employers have allegedly been unable to seek out appropriately expert workers regardless of a determined want. The “abilities hole” typically appears to imply a scarcity of STEM employees, though it appears to have spilled over into the whole lot from machinists to cotton sweet machine operators.

These STEM scarcity claims have been strongly challenged by a lot of lecturers together with Norman Matloff, Peter Cappelli, Ron Hira, Paula Stephan, Hal Salzman and a lot of others. They’ve additionally been challenged by working towards engineers and their households — most famously by Jennifer Wedel, the spouse of an out of labor semiconductor engineer, who confronted President Obama concerning the claims.

Purple Squirrels

You will need to perceive a subtlety of STEM employee scarcity claims. When excessive tech firms and their lobbyists declare there’s a scarcity of expert excessive know-how employees, they often use basic language equivalent to “there’s a scarcity of engineers,” “there’s a scarcity of programmers,” or “there’s a scarcity of know-how expertise.” Nevertheless, when pressed about seemingly extremely certified, typically older employees who can not discover jobs, they check with each in depth and really narrowly outlined particular abilities that they declare they will need to have. Older typically means over forty and even over thirty-five.

There may be truly a time period within the human assets enterprise for such narrowly outlined, extraordinarily troublesome or unattainable to seek out job candidates: purple squirrels. This time period has been popularized by Google recruiter Michael B. Junge in his latest guide Purple Squirrel.

It has been frequent for over twenty years within the pc business to come across massive numbers of extraordinarily narrowly outlined job descriptions.

For instance, a job advert could say one thing like:


3+ years work expertise growing iPhone recreation apps utilizing XCode, at the least two apps within the Apple app retailer
5 years Goal-C (the programming language for the iPhone)
3 years expertise with CoreAudio (a specific iPhone software program compnent)
3 years Agile software program growth (Agile is a software program growth methodology)
and so forth. (it’s not unusual to see lists of twenty necessities like this for one job)

Since iPhones have solely been in existence and sizzling for a couple of years, there are only a few if any software program engineers who can meet these {qualifications}. Have in mind in 2008 (4 years in the past), Blackberry was the King of the smartphone world. The iPhone was the “iWhat?”

These lists of necessities are sometimes so lengthy and choosy that there might not be a single engineer on this planet, together with real iPhone specialists, who would match them.

When excessive know-how firms check with shortages or to battles for expertise they’re virtually all the time referring to this type of extraordinarily uncommon or nonexistent “engineer” with in depth work expertise in dozens of very particular, typically new, instruments. It’s virtually all the time expressed as years of expertise utilizing a particular device, programming language, and so forth. moderately than a extra basic data of the exercise — equivalent to science or arithmetic. It’s typically like demanding {that a} automobile driver have expertise driving a really particular make and mannequin of automobile; we solely rent skilled Volvo drivers!

Sure, there’s a scarcity of purple squirrels, virtually by definition, however it has little to do with science, know-how, engineering, or arithmetic abilities or schooling as most individuals would outline them. It’s most likely unattainable for schools to anticipate fads such because the iPhone displacing the Blackberry. Colleges and schools don’t present work expertise. In truth, historically, faculties and schools have sought to offer basic foundational abilities equivalent to studying, writing, fundamental arithmetic, crucial pondering, and so forth that may stay useful for the lifetime of the coed — with good purpose.

The fixation on purple squirrels signifies that STEM careers are precarious and sometimes short-lived. In case you are a purple squirrel and you will discover the one or two employers curious about you, you could do effectively for a couple of years. However what then? What if a brand new fad or style comes alongside?

A Private Expertise

Again within the 1990’s the creator labored for a startup firm that needed to get into the then new, all of the sudden sizzling world of the World Large Internet and the Web. This startup had basically no in-house experience on the Internet; truly, direct expertise with the Internet and Web was fairly restricted on the time. The startup was contemplating streaming digital video over the online in 1995 — a technically difficult venture to say the least.

The creator launched the startup to Alistair (title and a few particulars modified to guard the privateness of the individuals). Alistair was a Ph.D. in physics from one of many prime universities in England. As an experimental particle physicist on the Stanford Linear Accelerator Middle, he had been closely concerned within the early days of the World Large Internet which began out as a device utilized by the particle physics group.

Alistair truly had a number of years of paid skilled expertise at a authorities analysis laboratory engaged on the Internet, one thing virtually nobody might legitimately declare in 1995. His work concerned creating browsers, servers, and different software program instruments, not simply and even principally creating net pages or web pages, though he did a few of that as effectively.

Alistair was an achieved software program developer and had finished a lot of consulting jobs for personal business on the aspect. Alistair additionally had good communication abilities and, in my expertise, didn’t undergo from the infamous vanity of physicists. He was a real purple squirrel.

The startup turned up their collective noses at Alistair, employed a a lot much less skilled advisor who admittedly dressed higher than Alistair, and spent a number of weeks and a number of other 1000’s {dollars} fumbling round with out success.

How actual is a purple squirrel hunt? It isn’t unusual to see real purple squirrels like Alistair turned down in a purple squirrel hunt within the Silicon Valley.

Why did the startup flip down Alistair and go together with a a lot much less skilled advisor who failed? In all seriousness, I think that Alistair’s informal gown contributed. The successful advisor wore a swimsuit and Alistair dressed — effectively — like lots of the engineers on the startup.

It’s doubtless that the startup executives didn’t understand that the particle physics group developed the World Large Internet. Despite the fact that the core applied sciences within the Silicon Valley may be traced time and time once more again to authorities sponsored analysis applications, many Silicon Valley executives consider the parable that these applied sciences had been developed in garages by youngsters or in typically non-existent company analysis labs. Gordon Crovitz’s infamous latest op-ed piece Gordon Crovitz: Who Actually Invented the Web? Opposite to legend, it wasn’t the federal authorities, and the Web had nothing to do with sustaining communications throughout a battle. is a outstanding instance of those faith-based beliefs.

The Market is my Shepherd; I shall not need.
The Market maketh me to lie down in inexperienced pastures:
The Market leadeth me beside the nonetheless waters.
The Market restoreth my soul:
The Market leadeth me within the paths of righteousness for His title’ sake.

Yea, although I stroll by the valley of the shadow of demise,
I’ll concern no evil: For the Market artwork with me;
Thy rod and thy employees, they consolation me.
The Market preparest a desk earlier than me within the presence of mine enemies;
The Market annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.

Absolutely goodness and mercy shall observe me all the times of my life,
and I’ll dwell within the Home of the Market perpetually.

Market-Primarily based Model of the twenty third Psalm

The startup executives had been in search of a software program developer with at the least three years of paid skilled business expertise working for the fantasy non-public firms that invented the World Large Internet!

Many (not all) sizzling new applied sciences are developed by comparatively small teams of individuals working for presidency sponsored analysis applications, typically in universities or authorities analysis labs. When the applied sciences all of the sudden develop into sizzling just like the World Large Internet within the Nineteen Nineties, after all, there’s a “scarcity” of individuals with direct expertise. That’s inevitable. In lots of instances, the few individuals with direct expertise is not going to have business expertise, narrowly outlined.

What does this “scarcity” need to do with STEM schooling? Completely nothing.


Laurent Bossavit’s latest guide The Leprechauns of Software program Engineering discusses a number of broadly repeated and broadly accepted shibboleths of software program engineering, tracing them again to the few authentic research, analysis papers, and, in some instances, unsubstantiated claims that they’re based mostly on. In each case that he discusses, the supporting proof could be very weak or nonexistent, therefore “Leprechauns.”

Two chapters take care of the idea of the “10X programmer,” a widely-held perception within the pc business. In its most excessive kind, the “10X programmer” perception holds that there are superprogrammers who can write code ten occasions sooner and higher than the standard or common skilled programmer (NOT the worst programmer). This concept has been promoted by software program engineering advisor Steve McConnell and Bossavit takes intention at McConnell’s supporting knowledge in two chapters and a prolonged appendix detailing his hunt for the first references and knowledge on the 10X declare.

An apparent drawback is that salaries for knowledgeable software program builders don’t range by an element of ten for the overwhelming majority of software program builders together with these with sturdy, spectacular credentials. Slightly the variation is extra like an element of two or three at most.

Bossavit discovered quite a few issues with the 10X claims together with the problem defining software program productiveness. In lots of instances, 10X referred to the distinction between one of the best and worst programmers, in some instances research of undergraduate pc science majors not skilled skilled programmers. Some research referred to variations in seeming productiveness between totally different tasks/groups, not damaged down by people.

A broadly reported declare of a 28:1 distinction in a 1968 examine referred to an apples to oranges comparability between one programmer coding a process in a excessive stage language on a time sharing pc (like a contemporary pc) versus a unique programmer coding the identical process in low stage machine language (zeros and ones) on a batch processing system (punch playing cards most likely).

Though Bossavit discovered some proof for the 10X declare in a single detailed NASA examine, there have been important points in deciphering the NASA knowledge that make even this one examine open to severe debate. The examine discovered a lot greater variations between programmers in smaller tasks than longer tasks which is obscure; the examine attributed this to much less skilled programmers being assigned to the shorter/smaller tasks. The underside line is that the proof behind the 10X perception is sort of restricted and topic to different interpretations.

That doesn’t imply that firms and hiring managers don’t consider in 10X programmers (or scientists or mathematicians) and attempt to discover them, repeatedly passing up seemingly extremely certified candidates. They might be attempting to find non-existent or exceptionally uncommon “leprechauns” as an alternative of the actual 1X, 2X or at finest 3X programmers, scientists, engineers, or mathematicians.

Might such distinctive individuals, in the event that they exist in any respect, be as a result of STEM schooling? Maybe, however such a big variation could have a genetic or unknown natural trigger (consuming plenty of spinach?). In truth, flooding STEM fields with non-10X individuals, a logical consequence of hyping STEM schooling, could make it a lot more durable to seek out these uncommon individuals even when they exist, very similar to SPAM making it troublesome to identify severe e-mails from individuals that you just have no idea. Flooding STEM fields with non 10X individuals could even drive the uncommon 10X individuals (in the event that they exist) out of the STEM fields altogether.

Ought to Children Study Math and Science?

Completely. Within the trendy world, basically everybody wants to make use of fundamental arithmetic to purchase meals and different gadgets, steadiness their checkbook, and carry out different actions of each day dwelling. All of us use math day by day. Folks want to grasp elevating numbers to powers to correctly perceive curiosity on financial savings accounts and loans. Within the housing bubble, many individuals had been bamboozled by advanced mortgage phrases and formulation. Algebra, trigonometry, and geometry — extra superior highschool math — does truly flip up in varied actual world actions together with constructing and structure, mechanical design, navigation and different actions.

With the unfold of computer systems into each dwelling and machine, the usage of arithmetic together with fairly superior arithmetic is changing into commonplace. Most individuals at the moment are utilizing subtle mathematical applications, typically with out realizing it: video compression equivalent to YouTube and Skype, the GPS system which tells individuals the place they’re, and pc generated imagery, for instance.

Complicated mathematical fashions are more and more being invoked in public coverage such because the fashions underlying claims of “international warming.” Specifically, an excellent understanding of chance and statistics on the faculty stage is required to grasp and consider claims about costly medical remedies equivalent to chemotherapy for most cancers. Must you depend on the claims of “specialists” who typically have conflicts of curiosity or do the calculations your self?

Nevertheless, whereas most children ought to study arithmetic, ought to they get a Ph.D. in arithmetic or pursue a profession in arithmetic? Most children study English, studying, and writing, however few develop into authors or newspaper writers, for instance. Most children play sports activities and lots of take pleasure in a number of sports activities, however few develop into skilled athletes.

There are some jobs within the non-public sector that make use of heavy arithmetic, particularly statistics. A few of these jobs pay fairly effectively. Nevertheless, they’re few and much between, and sometimes extremely specialised. Most likely lower than one p.c of current day software program jobs are extremely mathematical. The overwhelming majority of software program jobs make the most of fundamental arithmetic closely — basically some type of bookkeeping — and little else. The competitors for the uncommon extremely mathematical jobs is fierce.

When non-public firms complain about shortages of STEM employees and particularly individuals with mathematical abilities they’re usually referring to difficulties discovering specialists in a couple of slim areas to fill very narrowly outlined jobs: the purple squirrels.

Some firms equivalent to some Wall Avenue funding corporations are searching for or consider they’re searching for really distinctive scientists and mathematicians, e.g. the uncommon graduate pupil who has simply acquired the Fields Medal for his dissertation on stochastic differential equations — one of the best of one of the best of one of the best. One can consider buying and selling on Wall Avenue as a zero-sum recreation, a winner-take-all event by which even a tiny benefit can translate into huge returns. There may be all the time a scarcity of one of the best on this planet. Just one athlete wins the gold medal on the Olympics in a given sport. Just one participant can win the World Chess Championship.

Billionaire Land

STEM scarcity claims can often be traced again to blue ribbon panels, commissions, or non-public teams of company CEO’s and “energy scientists,” politically energetic Nobel Laureates, main analysis college presidents, and related lecturers. The present STEM mania may be traced again to the 2005 Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, chaired by former Lockheed CEO Norman Augustine.

Norman Augustine, for instance, definitely appears honest when he talks or writes about science and arithmetic schooling.

Thirty, forty years in the past, at the least based on most media studies, there have been solely a handful of billionaires in america: Howard Hughes, Daniel Keith Ludwig, and maybe one or two others. These males had fortunes that reportedly barely exceeded one-billion {dollars}. The variety of billionaires has soared within the final forty years, as has the variety of individuals with fortunes within the a whole lot of thousands and thousands of {dollars}.

These private fortunes are so massive, that the majority billionaires and centimillionaires most likely need to stay like historic Roman Emperors, surrounded by bodyguards and handlers 24/7. Like Howard Hughes who could have develop into a prisoner of his mysterious private safety drive, these people stay in a really totally different world even from the small wealthy with a couple of million {dollars}. Who of their proper thoughts would disagree with a billionaire aside from one other billionaire? Not too many individuals.

When a billionaire CEO talks a few scarcity of STEM “expertise,” she or he could also be honest however they’re typically speaking about one thing very totally different from frequent English utilization. If, for instance, one is having bother hiring the following Nikola Tesla, a really uncommon particular person, and even Thomas Edison, or at the least one’s preconceived notion of what these individuals would appear to be in a contemporary resume, that is actually very totally different from what a scarcity of scientists or mathematicians means to most individuals, together with college students with sturdy and even distinctive scientific or mathematical expertise.


STEM employee scarcity claims typically check with problem discovering job candidates with extraordinarily slim, typically prolonged job specs, virtually all the time a number of years of paid skilled business expertise in particular instruments or narrowly outlined methodologies: purple squirrels. In some instances, the scarcity claims most likely check with searches for really distinctive candidates who could not exist: leprechauns. There may be little relationship between these hiring difficulties and STEM schooling on the faculty or faculty stage.

Most often, firms can discover job candidates by being much less choosy and never attempting to find unattainable or extraordinarily troublesome to seek out purple squirrels, particularly within the present depressed economic system.

Corporations and hiring managers must also take a tough have a look at the precise proof for 10X programmers or different forms of supermen. Such persons are definitely extraordinarily uncommon and their existence is debatable. Nobody goes to seek out an precise leprechaun.

© 2012 John F. McGowan

In regards to the Writer

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with growing video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has in depth expertise growing software program in C, C++, Visible Primary, Mathematica, MATLAB, and lots of different programming languages. He’s most likely finest recognized for his AVI Overview, an Web FAQ (Continuously Requested Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has labored as a contractor at NASA Ames Analysis Middle concerned within the analysis and growth of picture and video processing algorithms and know-how. He has printed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low cost entry to area. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Expertise (Caltech). He may be reached at [email protected].

References/Instructed Studying

Purple Squirrel
By Michael B. Junge

Why Good Folks Can’t Get Good Jobs: The Abilities Hole and What Corporations Can Do About It
By Peter Cappelli

The Leprechauns of Software program Engineering
The Leprechauns of Software program Engineering: How folklore turns into reality and what to do about it
By Laurent Bossavit

A really enjoyable, very unrealistic film with Tim Robbins, Ryan Phillipe, and Claire Forlani that depicts the traditional mythology of youngsters in a storage growing breakthrough applied sciences within the Silicon Valley.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Secret Historical past of the Silicon Valley
Serial entrepreneur and excessive know-how startup knowledgeable Steve Clean’s presentation on the position of the federal government, particularly “members of the intelligence group,” within the Silicon Valley.