Anyone studying the humanities probably has a story of someone raising a skeptical eyebrow and asking: “What do you plan to do with that?” Students who major in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, however, are usually congratulated on choosing a dependable, lucrative path. But that perception might be overly simplistic, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
STEM majors do have a smoother exit ramp from college to career, the paper finds. But, while STEM majors earn more than their peers in their early 20s, the advantage soon begins to fade. In the first decade of their careers, the peers who majored in other subjects start catching up. Overall, STEM majors — specifically, in applied fields, like computer science or engineering, rather than “pure” sciences, like biology and chemistry — have flatter earnings over the course of their careers than those who studied other subjects.
That’s because, contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a shortage of STEM workers, say the paper’s authors, David Deming and Kadeem Noray. In fact, there’s a shortage of STEM skills. The know-how that makes STEM majors so competitive when they first enter the job market quickly becomes outdated as STEM jobs change rapidly, according to Deming and Noray's analysis. While some are promoted to management roles, many STEM majors end up leaving STEM occupations as their skills become obsolete and wage growth flattens.