Does Your STEM Degree Have a Shelf Life?

Americans pursuing science, tech, engineering, and math careers for career stability and higher pay are at risk of being pushed out of their fields in favor of younger workers.

Patricia Wood, a Curation Assistant, cleans seeds prior to storage at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, which now holds 10% of the world's wild plant species, at Wakehurst Place on October 15, 2009 near Haywards Heath, Sussex, England.
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Stephanie Czekalinsk
March 12, 2014, 8:19 a.m.

In the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans are pur­su­ing de­grees and cer­ti­fic­ates in sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math in the hopes of es­tab­lish­ing stable ca­reers in luc­rat­ive fields. But some aca­dem­ics and vet­er­an STEM work­ers, par­tic­u­larly those in com­puter sci­ences, cau­tion that a STEM de­gree does not guar­an­tee a path to middle-class se­cur­ity. In fact, de­pend­ing on one’s chosen course of study and age, that STEM de­gree could have a shelf life.

“Ageism is def­in­itely an open secret with­in the tech fields,” says Ron Hira, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, so­ci­ety, and pub­lic policy at the Rochester In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy. “Forty is where things start to change for tech [work­ers]; mech­an­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing, I’d say 45. Elec­tron­ics en­gin­eer­ing, I’d say closer to 35.”

From 2007 to 2013, for ex­ample, the num­ber of age-re­lated fed­er­al work­place-dis­crim­in­a­tion charges in­creased from four to 99 cases against com­puter-sys­tems com­pan­ies. That’s an in­crease of 2,375 per­cent. (For com­par­is­on, over the same time peri­od, age-dis­crim­in­a­tion charges across the private sec­tor in­creased by just 12 per­cent.)

Matt Heusser, a 37-year-old man­aging con­sult­ant at Ex­celon De­vel­op­ment in Grand Rap­ids, Mich., de­scribes a cul­ture in IT that fa­vors the young. Work­ers in their 20s and early 30s do not have ob­lig­a­tions yet, which stop them from work­ing an 80-hour week, he says. Young­er work­ers also be­ne­fit from the per­cep­tion that they have more re­cent train­ing in cut­ting-edge tech­no­logy. “It’s not this evil cabal of people say­ing you can’t get a job by the time you’re 40, but it hap­pens,” he says. “So people tend to find a com­pany that quit grow­ing at the same time they did, or they get out of IT.”

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The fed­er­al stats bear out Heusser’s ex­per­i­ence, work­ing in one of the Mid­w­est’s small yet in­nov­at­ive tech hubs. In 2012, 38 per­cent of the na­tion’s soft­ware de­velopers were un­der 35, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of census es­tim­ates. That year, 30- to 34-year-olds made up the largest num­ber of people to work in that oc­cu­pa­tion. The em­ploy­ment num­bers in the field then peaked at age 31 and fell off sig­ni­fic­antly after age 36. The num­ber of people work­ing as com­puter-sup­port spe­cial­ists and Web de­velopers also peaked among 30- to 34-year-olds, then dropped off, ac­cord­ing to the census data.

None of this is wel­come news as many Amer­ic­ans, look­ing for eco­nom­ic sta­bil­ity in a tur­bu­lent eco­nomy, have turned to sci­ence, tech, and math. Stacks of re­search high­light the grow­ing op­por­tun­it­ies in these fields. In 2012, Mi­crosoft re­por­ted that the U.S. was not pro­du­cing enough high-skilled work­ers. The com­pany said it was open­ing jobs faster than it was able to fill them, with 6,000 po­s­i­tions it needed to fill across the coun­try, 3,400 of them for re­search­ers, de­velopers, and en­gin­eers.

Over the next dec­ade, STEM oc­cu­pa­tions are ex­pec­ted to cre­ate 2.6 mil­lion job va­can­cies, in­clud­ing more than 3.8 mil­lion po­s­i­tions in com­puter and math sci­ence, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­port by the Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force at Geor­getown Uni­versity. Even the un­em­ploy­ment rate for those work­ing in STEM is lower than in rest of the eco­nomy, ac­cord­ing to a Com­merce De­part­ment re­port. At the height of the re­ces­sion, the un­em­ploy­ment rate for STEM work­ers was 5.5 per­cent, com­pared with 9.5 per­cent for non-STEM work­ers.

Still, those num­bers be­lie a com­plic­ated, com­pet­it­ive em­ploy­ment en­vir­on­ment that fa­vors young work­ers with re­cently ac­quired cre­den­tials. “If you don’t have a job with­in a cer­tain peri­od [of gradu­at­ing], you end up hav­ing to re­train,” says Dan Ward, a 58-year-old re­tired com­puter pro­gram­mer from Colum­bus, Ohio, an­oth­er Mid­west­ern city known for its tech cul­ture. He be­lieves work­ers have less than two years to use their de­grees be­fore they go stale.

Changes in the labor mar­ket have also made it more dif­fi­cult for em­ploy­ees to con­tin­ue train­ing throughout their ca­reers, says Eliza­beth Popp Ber­man, a so­ci­ology pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity at Al­bany, SUNY, who has stud­ied U.S. sci­ence and tech­no­logy policy.

As the ex­pect­a­tion of lifelong em­ploy­ment at a single com­pany has dis­solved, so has em­ploy­ers’ in­cent­ive to train their work­force. Work­ers are now more likely to be ex­pec­ted to shoulder the cost of their own train­ing, Ber­man says. “If you do well, you reap the be­ne­fits. If you run in­to a prob­lem, you’re on your own,” she adds. That puts older work­ers at a dis­ad­vant­age, as com­pan­ies turn to new­er work­ers to run more mod­ern equip­ment.

Norm Matloff, a pro­fess­or of com­puter sci­ence at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Dav­is), re­com­mends that people con­sid­er­ing go­ing in­to tech, par­tic­u­larly com­puter sci­ence, weigh their choices care­fully. If you’re 35 and look­ing to go back to school to bol­ster your earn­ings or to find a more stable ca­reer, he says, com­puter sci­ence might not be the best fit.

At 35, a per­son might be a re­cent gradu­ate, but “they’re still 35 and they still have the same prob­lems that 35-year-olds do.” Yet, for a 22-year-old the cal­cu­lus is dif­fer­ent. The field can be very re­ward­ing, and it can be “luc­rat­ive while you’re in it. But it’s not stable, that’s for sure,” Matloff says. That’s hardly wel­come news for work­ers of any age, search­ing for a safe haven in today’s eco­nomy.


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