2015 May 08 Friday
Labor Market Wants Technically Skilled And Few Heed The Call

Salary levels on the job market pretty much shout "study STEM subjects". But few people take that path. from the mid 1980s up to a few years ago the number of people getting STEM degrees stayed about the same while the number of college grads increased 50%.

Some people drop out of STEM degrees because it is hard. Others want to do work that involves more social interaction or caring for others. Check out what women major in at college. These college major choices are revealed preferences. What stands out: A very strong preference for the caring health professions. Useful jobs and fairly well paying too. But the women getting degrees in psychology are doing themselves no favors.

The women studying education are similarly wasting their time. Consider that the Teach For America idealists, while not really doing much good, are just as good at teaching as people who studied education as undergrads. So education degrees are a waste of time and money. But on the bright side, the numbers enrolled in teacher training have been plummeting.

Also on the bright side, the value added from STEM schools is getting more attention. Also on the bright side, some Ivy League graduates are going to coding camps after graduation to get the useful skills their expensive elite educations did not give them.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2015 May 08 07:15 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at May 9, 2015 9:14 AM:

It seems that many students who avoid STEM courses are precisely the ones who find these subjects too difficult. This means that most of those non-STEM students who later change their minds and attempt to take a crash course to become a programmer, will not be successful even if they work very hard. One exception would be in top schools where entrance is so competitive that many students who major in humanities majors actually have very high scientific aptitude, but this still represents only a small fraction of the population.

Separately, most universities make it possible to have at least a strong minor in an area very different from the major, but despite this, most people who study in humanities, psychology, etc, are afraid of taking even the most basic STEM courses. In addition, those who say that the avoid STEM courses because these are "inhumane, materialistic, nonspiritual, etc", are are every bit as materialistic, inhumane and nonspiritual as the STEM majors. In fact, it seems to me that especially the students who avoid science courses because they were afraid of getting a bad grade, are precisely the ones who have those inhumane and materialistic properties they are complaining about.

Jay said at May 9, 2015 9:59 AM:

STEM isn't difficult. Its boring. Its just a self-serving myth that its difficult. In some ways, a good English course is more difficult. The answers in STEM are always straightforward and logical. In an English course, there often is no right answer, and ill defined qualities like tone, mood, and sensibility play a role. STEM attracts people who are a) comfortable with boredom b) require simplicity and certainty over complexity and the unknown

There was an article in the NYT about a guy who had perfect math SAT scores and enrolled in STEM only to leave after finding out how boring it was. I suspect this is very common.

If the labor market is making demands most don't want to fulfill, we should question our allegiance to the labor market. Its as if we exist to serve the economy and anything the economy demands of us we must provide, rather than that the economy is a social institution that serves people and should therefore be balanced against other goods.

Anglo-style radical free market economy is the laughing stock of the rest of the world.

Dain said at May 9, 2015 2:17 PM:

I figured STEM attracts people who really want to design a unique website, make a video game, or learn how to cook meth - uh, or cure cancer! Coding and learning chemistry is needed to do this stuff. Who's just inherently comfortable with boredom? And people who "require simplicity and certainty" sound like dullards, not the bright people we know get involved in STEM.

Jay said at May 9, 2015 3:32 PM:

Lots of people are inherently comfortable with boredom. Dull people. Or people who have few other assets. Or people highly motivated to endure boredom and poor conditions because they feel they are playing catch up with the West, like Asians. Motivation should not be underestimated and probably explains as much about our world as IQ, and group differences in motivation exist as surely as IQ differences (and some amount of IQ differences between groups are probably just motivation differences, which would explain lots of puzzles in group outcomes that IQ can't explain). However motivation can't be quantified so no one discusses it.

I question that bright people get involved in STEM. People with certain motivations, with certain goals, and with particular personalities, get involved in STEM. There are many people as bright as Zuckerbrg who would never be motivated to bring that level of single-minded obsession and personal sacrifice towards achieving something they would regard as trivial and not greatly promoting of human welfare or happiness.

STEM attracts people who believe that gaining power over the physical world is the only worthwhile human activity, whether or not it promotes human happiness. Since 1500 Western societies were organized around the project of gaining power over the physical world as the only worthwhile end. But other cultures might not agree. For instance, East Asians historically found other ways of life far more fulfilling, and were dismissive of technological innovation. East Asians only changed because they had to in order to compete with the West, and they are just as bright as Westerners.

Jim said at May 9, 2015 6:26 PM:

Jay - I believe that the psychometric data indicates higher average IQ's in general for STEM majors. The psychometric data on East Asians clearly indicate a fairly strong advantage on quantitative IQ compared with Europeans.

As far as compensation in the market that depends on supply vs. demand. It doesn't really matter whether constraints on supply are due to the IQ demands of STEM jobs or to the fact that many people are bored by them. Jobs that are fun and easy to do will have a potentially large supply and so will be low paid.

People are generally bored by tasks that they cannot do well. I doubt that top programmers are always bored by what they are doing at work. Top scientists like Pauling or Watson seem to greatly like their work and find it exciting.

From what I've read of top scientists they generally seemed to have been intensely interested in their field of study and not at all bored with it.

Your notion that racial/ethnic differences in IQ are due to "motivation" is complete, total and utter nonsense.

Jay said at May 9, 2015 7:21 PM:

Jim - I have no doubt that's true. STEM will attract high IQ people with dull personalities. Other jobs will attract a wider range of IQ. So while in STEM jobs everyone is smart, in other jobs not everyone is, or not as much, but the proportion of smart people going into non-STEM might be as high or even higher than those going into STEM.

The psychometric data on Asians indicates a modest quantitative advantage. The strong Asian advantage is on spatial. And since real world observations don't tally with the Asian vs white IQ gap (unz.com has a post up on East Asian economic mediocrity compared to white countries, and the Asian genius gap is well known), that advantage might be mostly due to motivation (test taking motivation - I can imagine quite a few bright white people not bothering to try very hard on an IQ test). A scientific theory is only as good as how it tests against the real world.

"Your notion that racial/ethnic differences in IQ are due to "motivation" is complete, total and utter nonsense." I said a part of the difference, for some groups, might be. It is a perfectly reasonable scientific hypothesis that would be hard to test, but not impossible. Since the IQ hypothesis produces ambiguous results when tested against the real world, it is clearly an imperfect hypothesis.

Historically, East Asians were dismissive of technology, and often actively resisted it, most famously the Japanese. They certainly were not obsessed with technological innovation, which suggests it isn't a natural proclivity of bright people, and when they were exposed to technological innovation, they were not impressed with it. Today Asians have been forced to compete technologically or risk being conquered by the West. Historically, Asians were literary and artistic despite being well aware of technology as a domain of human activity and doing a few things in this field as well, so this is a radical departure for them, one which was taken only when it became clear it was absolutely necessary.

People are bored by tasks that are too easy for them, or don't give full play to their minds, or involve routine, or don't involve imagination, or aren't emotionally satisfying. People are frustrated by tasks they cannot do well.

You are repeating free market fundamentalist positions - that people should take what the labor market offers and not complain. I believe the labor market is just another social institution, and should be balanced against other social goods. In pre-modern Japan, for instance, rickshaw drivers would slow down if they came upon an older rickshaw driver in order to not create competition, and Japanese companies today do not attempt to maximize shareholder profits at the expense of jobs and other social goals. That strikes me as eminently sensible. Only some Western countries pursue efficiency and competition at the expense of all other social goals.

Wolf-Dog said at May 10, 2015 6:15 AM:

Jay wrote:
1) STEM isn't difficult. Its boring.
2)STEM attracts people who are a) comfortable with boredom b) require simplicity and certainty over complexity and the unknown.
3) There was an article in the NYT about a guy who had perfect math SAT scores and enrolled in STEM only to leave after finding out how boring it was. I suspect this is very common.


1) Not boring for those who are the innovators in STEM
2) Creative and research-oriented thinking is all about the complexity and the unknown, especially when it is being developed by real work before imitators use it and take it for granted. Easy courses can certainly be made the way you described, though: complexity and unknown censored.
3) How common do you think are the perfect SAT scores? The SAT scores are calculated with percentile rankings.

It turns out that one of the leading software boot camps that is aimed at recruiting the non-STEM majors without programming experience, actually has a stringent admission process that selects only about 5 % of the applicants (and hence 95 % those who graduate from their 12-week course get jobs that pay $100,000 per year, and only about 5 % of the ones that they accept to their course drop out or fail.) It seems that the instructors at this boot camp do not think that STEM is easy for everyone, they just select the ones who find it easy when the going gets tough.

Jay said at May 10, 2015 7:34 AM:

Yes, not all STEM is always and neessarily boring. Of course not. Especially at the top end there is some genuine creativity going in, and especially in science.

But most STEM isn't like that, and I don't believe Asians are going into STEM because they like it but because for historical reasons they are highly motivated to to do what it takes to catch up with the West. Asian civilization historically was characterized by a dismissive attitude towards what we today call STEM, and in fact, Asians evolved a thinking style, reflected in their great classics, that is so strikingly and obviously at odds with the mindset reflected in STEM - holistic, non-analytical, intuitive, nature-based - as to indicate an extreme natural lack of temperamental affinity for STEM. Asians distort their nature more than whites when they turn to STEM, but they do it -for now - for reasons that seem good to them.

People rarely consider things like motivation, ambition, goals, life preferences, and how these factors might differ for different people and groups. A highly intelligent person who would excel at STEM might find the prospect of turning out the next twitter, facebook, or uber rather trivial. He might see much of the most visible outcomes of STEM as bafflingly trivial. He might prefer artisan cheese making. He might think gaining power over the world isn't that interesting and prefer experiencing the world.

Well, yes, the bootcamp selects for those who find it easy when the going gets tough. 'Easy' for many of them because they are naturally boring people or highly motivated.

aandrews said at May 10, 2015 9:07 AM:

"STEM isn't difficult. Its boring."

Surely you're not sincere (!). With CS degree programs alone there's supposedly a substantial dropout and change of plans on the part of degree seekers. And it's not because they're bored.

Jay said at May 10, 2015 11:59 AM:

All I'm seeing here is people making assumptions - "surely the dropout rate means its tough!". The assumption seems to be that everybody has the exact same level of motivation, ambition, life goals, temperament, and money seeking propensities, and that the only variable is ability. This is a very weird assumption to make considering that we know humans differ on every metric, not just IQ, and that groups differ as well, and that these differences are often but not always situational. For instance, in the 19th century when the Chinese still thought they were the best people ever, they had a reputation for being lazy and averse to hard work. In the early nineteenth century and earlier the Germans had the same reputation. I wish I had that NY times link - its a psychological profile, not evidence, about a guy with perfect math SAT getting into MIT then ditching it because it was so much more boring than he expected and the social rewards so few.

Wolf-Dog said at May 10, 2015 12:09 PM:

Jay wrote
1) "Asians evolved a thinking style, reflected in their great classics, that is so strikingly and obviously at odds with the mindset reflected in STEM - holistic, non-analytical, intuitive, nature-based - as to indicate an extreme natural lack of temperamental affinity for STEM. Asians distort their nature more than whites when they turn to STEM, but they do it -for now - for reasons that seem good to them."
2) "Well, yes, the bootcamp selects for those who find it easy when the going gets tough. 'Easy' for many of them because they are naturally boring people or highly motivated."


Let me answer 2) first because this was my main point. They may or may not be boring, but those who can do serious professional coding are very rare indeed, only a small percentage of the population, certainly about 5 % of the population. This is because being highly motivated is not enough.
Conceptually STEM is "simple" only at the conceptual level, but once complexity (i.e. a competitive real world situation) appears, the easy parts disappear and STEM becomes very difficult, and the difficulty has nothing to do with being boring but everything to do with aptitude. It is very easy to learn a computer language, but writing a long and complex program that is competitive in the real world is significantly more difficult than just knowing the basic foundations.

As for 1), maybe you are talking about some parts of India and Tibet, but the Chinese culture has always been very analytical and scientific. Chinese scientists discovered the magnetic compass, paper currency, the foundations of differential calculus long before the west. Only due to politics and geography Chinese dynasties collapsed many times, but they have always been .scientific thousands of years.

Wolf-Dog said at May 10, 2015 12:17 PM:

To be more exact, that smart kid with perfect SAT scores is rare, even if STEM is boring, and the rare part is not the fact that he found it boring, but the fact the he had the high SAT score, or else he wouldn't have entered MIT for the first place. Without the high SAT scores, he would not have succeeded at MIT even if he had been accepted.

Sam said at May 10, 2015 12:41 PM:

Jay said,"...STEM isn't difficult. Its boring..."

Barbie said,"Math is hard."

Bob said at May 10, 2015 5:37 PM:


A lot of the people who have been not going into STEM have been going into finance and law, which is in general just as boring and tedious as STEM work and involves poring over Excel spreadsheets, financial statements, legal documents, etc. They've been going into because it's been relatively more lucrative and secure, not because it's inherently more interesting work.

Randall Parker said at May 11, 2015 11:33 PM:


STEM is hard. Most people can't understand upper division math classes. It is beyond their ability. Physics is too hard for most people. Some computer problems can't be grasped by most software developers. I've had a life of working with software developers of different levels of intellectual ability. Some can't follow what others grasp easily. I've experienced huge differences in the ability of different people to grasp a description of a really complex serving stack or protocol stack.

Jay said at May 14, 2015 3:40 PM:

@Wolf-dog. I never said motivation is enough. I said you have to have a minimum level of above average intelligence, and the rest is motivation. Many, perhaps most, highly intelligent people simply aren't motivated to endure the drudgery, or the meaninglessness, of STEM. Lets say coding camps attracts people of above average intelligence - the ones who tough it out are not necessarily the most intelligent, merely the most motivated.

The idea that the only variable on who does STEM is intelligence is obviously ludicrous on the face of it. Although, I can understand why people who did "tough it" would be motivated to think so.

Chinese culture had rationalistic elements and even invented some technology, but these were minor elements of the culture. Chinese culture is defined by a way of thinking that is found in their canonical classics, like Sun Tzu, Lao Tze, the Analects, the countless other oracular, intuitive, and gnomic works. Compare Clauzewitz with Sun Tzu. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism define Chinese culture, and are remote from the spirit of STEM. Chinese painting, calligraphy, etc - all of it extremely remote from the spirit of STEM.

The situation is analagous in the West. Taoism almost in its entirety can be found in Montaigne, and elements of it in many other writers, and there are Western analogs to every single strand of Asian thought, down to nature worship. But Western culture is defined by a very different spirit - a rationalistic and nature-dominating one. The idea that the West produced a writer like Montaigne who is practically a Taoist would hardly convince anyone that the West has a strong affinity for Taoism.

@Bob - finance and law is not as boring as STEM - well, maybe law comes close. Business has human contact, competition, gamesmanship, and many other gratifyingly human and emotional elements lacking in STEM. Law to a lesser degree, but these exist there as well. STEM in most of its aspects is uniquely unsuitable to human satisfaction. Even in law you are dealing with humans and have to consider the psychology and emotions of humans to some extent.

@Randall - Hard relative to what? Perhaps it isn't clear that I am talking about the population of smart people. For most above average intelligence people, STEM isn't hard, and those who stick with STEM don't do so because of greater intelligence. Physics also isn't hard for most above average intelligence people - community colleges are replete with physics classes. Most Asian coders aren't stars, they are drudges, but they do it anyway. Like everything, STEM is hard at the highest levels, but hardness does not characterize STEM as a whole. In fact, being a decent - not great - coder is probably one of the easiest things an above average intelligence person can do. I know two very successful STEM guys, both with successful companies, one who has a tested IQ of 115, and the other of 120.

Bob said at May 14, 2015 5:29 PM:


Most legal work consists of tedious paper work and poring over documents. It's not like exciting courtroom TV dramas. Most lawyers aren't litigators, and most litigators spend most of their time poring over documents and doing paper work. Most work in finance and investment banking involves staring at computer monitors all day and working with Excel spreadsheets.

The work in law and finance is just as boring and tedious as STEM work. The difference is that law and finance are more lucrative, secure, and socially prestigious than STEM. Investment bankers don't stay in the office till 3 or 4 in the morning and risk death because the work is so damn interesting, but because of the promise of huge payouts:


“We all work long hours, but the guys working regularly until 3am or 4am are those in investment banking. People working in markets will have to be in at 6am but not stay as late, so what time you can leave the office depends on your division.

“You’re only doing it for up to 10 weeks so there’s a general acceptance of it. I see many people wandering around, blurry-eyed and drinking caffeine to get through but people don’t complain because the potential rewards are so great. We’re competing for some very well-paid jobs.”

Another intern living at Claredale claimed that Mr Erhardt, who had been earning £2,700 a month or £45,000 pro rata, collapsed from exhaustion. “He apparently pulled eight all-nighters in two weeks. They get you working crazy hours and maybe it was just too much for him in the end,” they said.

Users of the popular finance blog wallstreetoasis.com insisted Mr Erhardt regularly worked long hours, with his final three days consisting of 21-hour stints in the office. One said: “He was found dead in the shower by his flatmate. Intern at BAML who went home at 6am three days in a row.”

Peter said at May 14, 2015 8:03 PM:


Isn't STEM considered beta? Isn't that why few are going into STEM?

Jay said at May 17, 2015 11:22 AM:

Steve Farron -

"........A more important reason for the greater importance of the Verbal section is that it is a more accurate measure of General Intelligence (i.e., it is more g-loaded) than the Math section. To state that non-technically: the Verbal section is a more accurate measure than the Math of ability at "analyzing, synthesizing, and manipulating information; distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information; and other types of abilities that are commonly called intelligent" (page 303 of my book). (The definitive discussion of General Intelligence (g) is Jensen 1998.)

The higher g-loading of the Verbal than the Math SAT explains a fact that I mention on pages 281-3 of my book. I show there that coaching/preparation does little to raise SAT scores. But it raises Math scores more than Verbal scores. This probably surprised many readers, who assumed that the opposite should be true. However, although the form of the Verbal section is words, its substance is General Intelligence; and General Intelligence is the most completely genetically determined of all mental traits....."


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