What to do in regards to the Catch-22 STEM Job Market?

Now how will we BREAK this vicious cycle?? If the statistic stays true that solely 3% of school graduates get jobs of their fields, then how are the opposite 97% purported to BREAK this vicious cycle? Particularly in an financial system the place there might very nicely not BE sufficient actually entry-level positions for the variety of STEM graduates that every one universities, main and minor, are cranking out yearly.

— Penny’s Touch upon The Catch-22 STEM Job Market

That is my response to Penny’s query which appears worthy of broader circulation as a standalone submit:


I feel among the points that you just write about relate to the final political and financial issues afflicting america and the world in the meanwhile. Many of those financial and political points are past the scope of a Math Weblog submit, though I’ve touched on them sometimes in previous posts. I’ll focus extra particularly on the Catch-22 STEM Job Market and STEM-specific points beneath.

Battle the Purple Squirrel!

Purple squirrel is a time period from the human sources enterprise for a job for which the necessities — expertise, expertise, credentials and so forth — are so in depth and nit-picky that in all probability no such applicant exists or a certified applicant is exceptionally uncommon. In lots of circumstances, the necessities are unjustified. Many STEM job postings look like purple squirrel hunts.

If STEM employers have been much less choosy and extra reasonable in hiring, they may in all probability save a big sum of money on salaries and fill STEM positions extra rapidly. This could in all probability be a combined blessing for STEM staff. It might be simpler to discover a job however salaries could be decrease usually. In all probability as of late many individuals could be glad to have a job and dispense with the pointless and demeaning “purple squirrel” job hunt.

Sadly, these hiring patterns are deeply rooted. The identical patterns seem to have held for over twenty years in STEM fields, particularly software program engineering. I’ve personally skilled them since my first job hunt within the early 1990’s.

STEM Work is Not Soccer

STEM Work is Not Football

STEM Work is Not Soccer

There may be an unspoken — or a minimum of not often acknowledged — perception that all STEM fields are slightly like aggressive sports activities. There’s a comparatively brief studying curve akin to for soccer (US or European) or basketball. Even exceptionally advanced fields like molecular biology or sure varieties of software program growth are seen as comparatively “straightforward” in some sense. That is coupled to a perception that there’s a kind of psychological horsepower that’s mainly a bodily attribute like muscle power that declines pretty quickly with age as with efficiency in soccer and plenty of different bodily sports activities. Given these two beliefs, the perfect worker in a STEM area is a slender specialist with 3-5 years of expertise, nonetheless in his or her twenties, nonetheless at their bodily and presumed psychological peak.

For instance, code.org’s inspirational video has a protracted lead-in with luminaries akin to Invoice Gates seemingly explaining how “straightforward” software program growth is (the video is closely edited and the audio system might have been taken out of context) and explicitly evaluating coding to basketball. One of many audio system is NBA basketball star Chris Bosh who codes on the facet.

The code.org video doesn’t level out the draw back of this analogy to sports activities. You would possibly change into the following Kareem Abdul Jabbar however extra doubtless you’ll change into one among legions of has-beens and never-were’s struggling to make a dwelling after thirty-five, to not point out the numerous highschool basketball stars who by no means play professionally. Many basketball stars have gone bankrupt; by his personal account, Kareem Abdul Jabbar suffered from dangerous funding recommendation.

These two beliefs militate strongly towards each entry-level workers and workers with various years of expertise. These beliefs present a believable rationalization for the outstanding persistence of the identical distribution of expertise necessities in job postings throughout a variety of STEM fields with very totally different studying curves. In addition they assist to elucidate the perpetual STEM scarcity claims. STEM fields are slightly like science fiction writer William F. Nolan’s dystopian novel Logan’s Run and the Hollywood film of the identical identify wherein everyone seems to be killed at a sure age (twenty-one within the ebook and thirty within the film), leading to a perpetual want for brand spanking new blood.

How nicely based are these beliefs?

Definitely, in a single respect, the beliefs have some basis in that younger single persons are often in good well being and peak bodily situation. They will, usually, work longer hours doubtlessly together with extra unpaid time beyond regulation than older STEM staff. There isn’t a query the power to do that declines with age for bodily causes in addition to the acquisition of a household.

Legal guidelines extending the requirement to pay for time beyond regulation to STEM staff would get rid of this. In precept, in an environment friendly “free” market, competitors would pressure corporations to pay for additional time beyond regulation with none legislation. It appears pretty evident that STEM labor markets don’t act like idealized “free” markets. Truly, they could be extremely irrational — a lot for Milton Friedman.

What about psychological horsepower within the sense of IQ, some measure of intelligence or general psychological functioning — the elusive g or basic intelligence? Does it decline drastically by 35 or at most 40 as STEM hiring practices appear to counsel. This appears slightly unlikely — if not a completely irrational perception — to me (see the research beneath for some opposite knowledge). Nonetheless there’s empirical knowledge and anecdotal proof of a widespread perception to this impact in STEM fields, particularly pc software program.

What might be accomplished?

In precept, it could be potential to persuade (or require by legislation) employers to undertake extra rational, data-driven hiring insurance policies. See, for instance:

Like a Good Scotch, Builders Get Higher With Age by Klint Finley, Wired, April 30, 2013

Older programmers are extra educated however tougher to seek out: U.S. labor knowledge means that a good portion of programmers depart the job in center age by Phil Johnson, IT World, Might 1, 2013

It’s official: builders get higher with age. And scarcer. by Peter Knego


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

Many generally held beliefs about software program particularly and STEM fields usually are mainly folklore, not proof primarily based. Some are literally strongly contradicted by historic proof and knowledge. It might be potential to gather knowledge with the Web and different trendy instruments to debunk many widespread beliefs as Emerson Murphy-Hill, Peter Knego and Laurent Bossavit attempt to do within the research referenced above.

As I’ve written about beforehand, the widespread notion of the 10X programmer or super-programmer which Bossavit spends a number of chapters calling into query nearly definitely contributes to the difficulties that even extremely certified software program engineers usually encounter in search of employment. Comparable beliefs to the 10X programmer in all probability exist in different STEM fields.

With respect to the soccer analogy in STEM fields, there are literally many examples of main scientific and technological breakthroughs made by folks over forty and even into outdated age. The Swiss mathematician Johann Jakob Balmer found the Balmer method for the spectral traces of hydrogen at age sixty. Kepler was forty-eight when he found his so-called Third Regulation after nineteen years of learning Tycho Brahe’s knowledge on the motions of Mars and different planets. The mathematician Yitang Zhang just lately made a serious advance in prime quantity concept in his fifties after years of obscurity together with working as an accountant and at a Subway sandwich store (not a lot proof of the purported extreme STEM scarcity there).

See (for instance):

Nice Innovations Come Later in Life (Age and Nice Invention, NBER Working Paper 11359) by Benjamin Jones (Might 2005)


Age dynamics in scientific creativity by Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg, PNAS November 7, 2011

These research present the common age for Nobel-prize profitable work and main technological innovations within the twentieth century was truly late 30’s to early 40’s with a considerable fraction over fifty.

For entry-level STEM staff the difficulty is an irrational perception that they can’t do varied comparatively straightforward duties and features applicable for entry-level staff. By some means two or extra usually three years of expertise is all the time required even for writing a “Hiya world” sort program.

#embrace <iostream>

utilizing namespace std;

int principal(int argc, char ** argv)

Does Not Require Three Years Expertise: "Hiya World" in C++

Maybe we want a nationwide grass-roots "Battle the Purple Squirrel!" group considerably alongside the traces of Mark Zuckerberg's FWD.us or code.org however utilizing its powers for good as an alternative of evil :-).

Political lobbying has not confirmed efficient thus far

Whereas it could be useful to teach coverage makers about these points, political lobbying on a few of these points has thus far confirmed ineffective. Essentially the most well-known instance is Jennifer Wedel's query to President Obama concerning her husband, an out of labor semiconductor engineer in 2012. Regardless of direct approaches akin to this and plenty of detailed research refuting the STEM scarcity claims, coverage makers proceed to say and maybe consider there's a extreme STEM scarcity, pervasively implied to be a scarcity of fundamental arithmetic expertise taught in highschool and school, and do little to deal with purple squirrelitis and associated maladies.

The persistence of the STEM scarcity claims and associated insurance policies elevate troubling questions on whether or not america is really a democracy within the fundamental sense of the phrase, the independence and reliability of our "free press," and even the rationality of our leaders.

Job hunt spam

At a person degree, I feel job seekers want to contemplate the "purple squirrel" job posts and posters as a type of spam and attempt to filter these spam job postings out. Spam is often outlined as unsolicited business bulk e-mail or different digital messages, usually of uncertain worth.

Particularly with the Web, it prices little and typically is free for employers to submit job listings that they don't the truth is fill, as they loudly declare in sure contexts. Job boards akin to LinkedIn and Craig's Record seem to derive a lot of their precise revenues from these posts and thus have little rapid incentive to display out purple squirrel jobs posts, posts which are merely by no means stuffed for different causes, and even scams masquerading as job postings.

Sadly, some job posters are incorrectly itemizing as necessities expertise and expertise that ought to correctly be described as "most popular" or "desired" slightly than "required." They really could be prepared to rent the job seeker even when she or he lacks the "required" expertise. After discovering they can't discover the legendary purple squirrel, they'll accept the precise grey squirrel.

In English, "required" means "should have" and never "good to have". "Most well-liked" means "good to have" and never "should have." "Desired" is definitely ambiguous. It may imply "should have" or it may imply "good to have." I want Angelina Jolie and refuse up to now anybody else (good luck there). I want Angelina Jolie however date my fairly subsequent door neighbor. Many STEM job posts have a "required" or "necessities" sections adopted by a piece that's labeled "Most well-liked", "Desired", or one thing comparable and possibly refers to "good to have" expertise and expertise.

Angelina Jolie: Required or Merely Desired?

Angelina Jolie: Required or Merely Desired?

Therefore, it's in all probability prudent to ship a resume or contact potential employers who might be engaged in a purple squirrel hunt primarily based solely on the lengthy, nit-picky checklist of necessities of their job posting however might be extra versatile in follow. However discover a strategy to determine and display out the real purple squirrel hunters as rapidly as potential whereas persevering with to speak with extra versatile potential employers. It may be time consuming, irritating, and typically demeaning to waste your time with a protracted interview with a purple squirrel hunter. By their very own loudly trumpeted admissions, the purple squirrel hunters usually by no means fill these jobs.

There may be clearly a tradeoff right here. In all probability no actual world methodology may display out all purple squirrel job posts with out screening out most or all applicable job posts. Particularly in case you are working full time, dealing with purple squirrel job posts can eat up numerous time. Worst case you would possibly spend a day and even two days in uncommon circumstances interviewing with a possible employer who has no actual curiosity in hiring you, expending your restricted paid day without work (PTO) on a purple squirrel hunt. You possibly can in all probability spend extra time on purple squirrel hunts as a part of the value of discovering an actual job when out of labor, however the purple squirrel hunts and different inappropriate job postings can eat precious time and sources even so.

Frankly, I have no idea a confirmed, evidence-based strategy to display out the purple squirrel hunters and different inappropriate job posters. One other associated downside are job posters with grossly unrealistic concepts in regards to the dimension, scope, danger degree, and problem of STEM tasks. I'm positive many of those additionally don't find yourself hiring folks as they both understand the venture is way bigger than they thought or rationalize their unrealistic considering by claiming there's a scarcity of certified STEM staff -- slightly like complaining there's a scarcity of staff who can stroll on water.

I personally have tried just a few concepts to display out the spam job postings or inquiries with combined outcomes. For instance, that is my "get acquainted" video for potential shoppers which addresses a few of these points:

I've had combined outcomes with this video though I wish to suppose it's fairly clear on some points.

Deeds not phrases

If potential, STEM college students and staff ought to in all probability create an on-line portfolio of professional-level work that demonstrates they will do the job they're in search of -- much better than school course-work, grades, and standardized check scores. This isn't sensible for all job seekers. A job seeker wants free time to create a portfolio except they will get permission to make use of work from a present or earlier employer of their portfolio. If somebody is working their manner by way of school or college, they could not have time to create a portfolio.

Though making a portfolio is changing into increasingly widespread, and I personally suppose it's the factor to do if potential, it has not been validated by knowledge and proof for essentially the most half, outdoors probably of some specialised areas akin to video-game software program growth the place it has been a standard follow for years. Video-game software program growth particularly is famous for lengthy hours and extremely unstable working situations and customarily brief careers.


Sadly, there isn't any sure remedy for the Catch-22 STEM job market. Most of the beliefs and insurance policies, each private and non-private, that trigger the Catch-22 STEM job market are deeply rooted. Whereas I personally consider the insurance policies are short-sighted, dangerous, and contribute to the slowdown in scientific and technological progress during the last forty years, that is troublesome to show. Frankly, "tech" billionaires who're rewarded handsomely for flashy devices with minimal sensible advantages and glorified courting websites (and job boards 🙂 ) merely might not care.

Accumulating and disseminating independently verifiable knowledge contradicting widespread folklore about STEM jobs, careers, and fields such because the "soccer analogy" in software program engineering might assist.

At a person degree, STEM job seekers ought to attempt to display out the purple squirrel hunts and different types of job hunt spam. Entry-level and different STEM staff could possibly deal with the irrational prejudice towards them by build up portfolios of professional-level work, maybe in collaboration with others to deal with the "are you a staff participant?" considerations that employers might have.

© 2013 John F. McGowan

In regards to the Writer

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with creating video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has in depth expertise creating software program in C, C++, Visible Primary, Mathematica, MATLAB, and plenty of different programming languages. He's in all probability greatest identified for his AVI Overview, an Web FAQ (Steadily 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 expertise. He has revealed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low cost entry to house. 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 might be reached at [email protected].


The soccer picture is an image of the 2004 Vanderbilt-Navy soccer recreation from Wikimedia Commons. It's within the public area.


The picture of actress Angelina Jolie on the San Diego ComicCon 2003 is from Wikimedia Commons and made obtainable underneath a Inventive Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.


References and Recommended Studying

IT Expertise Scarcity or Purple Squirrel Hunt? by Thomas Claburn, Data Week, March 7, 2013

Why Corporations Aren't Getting the Staff They Want by Peter Cappelli, Wall Avenue Journal (On-line), October 24, 2011