STEM Required for SBIRs to Bear Fruit

Last week at the SPIE Optifab conference, Chris L. Koliopolis of Zygo Corporation made the radical pronouncement, “There is no unemployment in the tech industry.” He stated that the unemployment rate in the optics industry is 2.5%. That means that unemployment in the tech sector during the worst recession since 1982 (which was the worst since the Great Depression) is better than the unemployment rate of the general population in 1953, when the U.S. economy was arguably at its strongest ever. (Look at this fun bit of data mining I made using Wolfram Alpha.) Translation: The worst unemployment rate in the science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) sector is better than the best unemployment rate in the general sector.

So you gotta ask yourself: Why do so few people in the United States pursue STEM careers? I’ll get into some of my thoughts on what’s going wrong and how that relates to scientific funding opportunities, but first let’s get a grasp on just how bad this problem is.

The dwindling pool of  STEM-educated workers has ebbed so low that it has become a critical national security issue. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has compiled a page of unnerving statistics. Among the highlights (um… “lowlights”?):

  • Out of 29 developed nations, the U.S. ranks 27th on the number of Bachelors degrees awarded in STEM fields. (Only 6% of U.S. undergraduates major in engineering, compared to 40% in China. )
  • Jobs requiring mathematics training are increasing at four times the rate of other employment.
  • Half of all engineers in the U.S. will retire with the baby-boom generation.
  • Scientific advances drive over 1/2 of the U.S. economic growth.

So… you put all that together, and you have the makings of what can modestly be called a looming disaster (or, more colorfully “The Gathering Storm“, as it was termed in a 2007 report co-authored by National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine). Furthermore things are actually even more dire at the trade-school and Associate Degree levels. As Mike Mandina, president of Optimax Systems, Inc., has told me on more than one occasion, his most prized employees are his technicians, and he doesn’t have enough of them. Sam Sadoulet (whom I saw on the same panel as Koliopolis) cited a similar problem at Edmund Optics, stating that “Manufacturing isn’t sexy.”

The “… isn’t sexy” thing is the root of the problem. Tech jobs pay well, they’re intellectually stimulating, they offer a lot of professional autonomy, and (as we covered in the first paragraph) they’re considerably more secure than other industries. From a rational perspective, tech jobs are an obvious career choice.

The problem is that humans are not nearly as rational as we might like to think. In fact recent studies in neurobiology have shown that the prime motivator for people is status, as opposed to salary or promotion. (David Rock, who is sort of the guru of the “neuroleadership” movement, has a nice review paper here.) Simply put, if a given career is not going to earn a person respect from their family and peers, then that person will probably not pursue that career, even if it has other very tangible benefits.

So… consider your typical high school. Just how much status does a student gain from winning the science fair, compared to, say, winning a basketball game? For that matter, how much status does someone gain from winning a design challenge in shop class, versus winning a Guitar Hero competition?

We’ve got to change that.

Which brings us to some funding initiatives. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has long been an advocate of improving STEM education in the U.S. For anyone with clever ideas to encourage more students to enter and stick with STEM degree programs, a quick search for “STEM” on NSF’s funding website will return hundreds of active requests for proposals.

What intrigues me now, though, is the Navy’s fairly recent “STEM2Stern” program. I first heard about the program from Tracy Frost, the SBIR program manager for the Office of Naval Research. She is encouraging SBIR researchers to attend the upcoming Naval STEM Forum in June. Creating links between the SBIR and STEM programs is brilliant. (We’ve already established that I’m a fan of the SBIR program.) Small businesses are among the first affected by the lack of trained STEM personnel… sort of the “canaries in the coal mine”… so the Navy’s active solicitation of new STEM program ideas from the SBIR community shows a remarkable prescience. I’m encouraging my colleagues and clients to attend the forum, as it seems like a prime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new program with long-term regional and national benefits. I’m really eager to hear what people get out of it.



1 ping

    • on May 18, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Tom Battley, the Executive Director of the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster, sent me a link to video that correlates to the “status” problem I mentioned. The video is Mike Rowe speaking at a 2008 TED Conference on the subject of “dirty jobs.”

    Now, I gotta say… this may not be suitable for work (but what are you doing watching YouTube at work anyway?). The “dirty job” in question deals with castrating lambs. It’s up to you to determine how that might fly at your office. If you just want to jump to the punchline around 15:20, where Mike says, “We have declared war on work.”

    Anyway, here’s the link:

    • on May 31, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Tom Battley contacted Chris to expand on his estimate of 2.5% unemployment in the optics industry. Here is Chris’s response, dated May 24:

    My statement “the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s level or higher education is 4.5%” is found here. This includes everyone, including English majors, Liberal Arts, etc.

    For engineers, here is an older reference, I will look for the more recent one. I do not have specific unemployment rates for optical engineers, just the fact that it is very difficult to hire right now.

    For the computer industry in Q1 of 2011, computer hardware engineers – 2.8% unemployment rate.

    Here is stats from the Wall Street Journal covering occupational rates on an annual basis, data through 2010.

    Older NSF study

  1. […] Institute of Technology, and hundreds of mid-size and small regional businesses. Last year I echoed the alarm that the optics industry is starved for talent, particularly skilled technicians. Accepting the […]

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