There is a common belief that if graduates want to stay ahead of the competition and increase their chances of a lucrative and long-lasting career, then it’s best to sign up for a science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) degree.
But, many educators are starting to warn against over-reliance on the STEM sectors.
For starters, the Productivity Commission noted in a 2016 report that STEM graduates fare poorly in the job market, with the exception of those who studied healthcare, mining engineering and surveying.
In what it referred to as the “STEM paradox”, the report noted “below average” employment outcomes for graduates in life sciences, chemistry and the physical sciences.
“Moreover, a significant share of people completing STEM degrees and in full-time employment do not consider that their qualification is important to their main job,” the report stated. Furthermore, the Grattan Institute’s Mapping Australian Higher Education 2016 report found that in 2015, only half of bachelor’s degree science graduates had found full-time work four months after completing their degrees, 17 per cent below the average for all graduates.
STEMMING THE TIDE
Of course there are some STEM graduates who do well. According to The Good Careers Guide, some earn significantly more than other sectors from the get-go. While the average degree graduate starting salary is $52,840, the guide’s survey found that engineering graduates earn an average of $62,102 — putting them almost $10,000 above the national graduate average.
Furthermore, employment rates are as high as 97 per cent in medicine and 91 per cent in pharmacy, the guide notes.
But it’s a different story for the less-in-demand STEM sectors, such as physical sciences, life sciences and chemistry.
Online study support service Studiosity founder Jack Goodman agreed that STEM degrees were not bulletproof.
“The problem is that many students are graduating without the skills that employers are looking for,” Mr Goodman said. “It’s not so much a problem with STEM, it’s that we need to focus more on developing good communication skills, initiative, and student willingness to adapt to changing technology.
“What employers really want is people who can adapt and are open to change, because change is happening so quickly.”
While a STEM degree in health or mining engineering will clearly put a student in good stead, it will not necessarily translate into full-time employment without other vital skills. “Academic writing and numerical skills are missing in a lot of students,” Mr Goodman said.
“It doesn’t matter what school you went to, a lot of high school students are graduating having spent more time on devices than reading and this creates a group of people whose value will be diminished in the workplace if they can’t write a memo cogently, or construct a paragraph to argue a certain point.”
The Productivity Commission seems to agree, stating: “Given the relatively high underemployment of STEM graduates and apparent under-utilisation of STEM skills, the current approaches are not delivering the problem-solving skills needed for technology-rich work environments.”
SO WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
Libby Marshall founded her careers consultancy, Steam Capital, to change the way people thought about employment. While the word “stem” makes up part of her business name, the “a” pointedly stands for arts and humanities.
“STEM skills are important, don’t get me wrong, but so are the arts and humanities, which provide another way of thinking about problems,” Ms Marshall said.
She thinks students need to start thinking more in terms of developing “skills” rather than job requirements because jobs evolve, whereas top-notch skills can be applied across fields.
“Employers, too, need to broaden their idea of who they should hire and look at how someone with a science degree might have skills that they can apply to a role that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with that field,” she said. “People will have many jobs throughout their life but they shouldn’t have to go back to university and restudy because they want to change careers if they have skills they can already put in place.”
Mr Goodman predicted universities would receive a “wake-up call” in the coming years, as the value of the degrees came under greater scrutiny.
“Simply getting a degree is no longer a meal ticket to a great-paying job and I think universities are at a genuine long-term risk if they’re not adequately preparing students for the workforce,” he said.
To compare graduate salaries across all fields of study, visit www.gooduniversitiesguide.com.au.
This article originally appeared in The Weekly Times – STEM sectors may not be the ideal place to try and secure a job