Do STEM jobs require a college degree? (Is college for everyone?)


When I hear messaging (on the news, the school PA) that imply/assume that everyone should go to college I cringe. The implication of this messaging is that everyone should attend a 4 year college or university because 4 year college graduates earn more over a lifetime than those without the degree. While this may be true for some, it is also true that many are graduating carrying a lot of debt (average about $27,000) and many cannot find gainful let alone meaningful employment in their field of study.

I can’t find the precise source of the assertions but two local K-12 educational  leaders I have heard speak have cited statistics that affirm that not all jobs require a 4 year college degree.  One said only about 25-30% of all jobs require a 4 year degree. More recently I heard one administrator state that nearly half (46%) of all new STEM* jobs in our state would require high school graduation and up to an AA degree. Yet the messaging persists. Meanwhile almost 1 in 4 of our high school students do not complete high school graduation requirements. I am sure there are MANY factors that contribute to this. And among these factors I wonder to what extent the DNA principle affects the dropout rate: DNA = as in “this Does Not Apply to me because if high school is to prepare me for college as I hear all the time and I know I can’t afford/don’t plan on going to college/etc. then high school isn’t that important for me.”

Between August 1991 and May 1993 I managed the hiring process during which time we hired more than 2,000 production workers, technicians, engineers, supervisors, marketing and finance staff plus another 1,000 temporary workers to design, build and market Hewlett Packard’s consumer inkjet color printer line. More than half the total were hired for jobs requiring an AA degree or less; we even did not require a high school diploma for our assembly line jobs. The most difficult-to-fill positions were those requiring an technical AA degree or equivalent experience to support the automated manufacturing operations we were building. Over time we had to develop our own in-house technician training program in collaboration with our local community college.  I even represented HP on some local workforce development committees since we were then the largest private employers in SW WA. All the employers on these committees did not believe the local K-12 system was producing the caliber of entry level not to mention the more technically skilled workers we needed. We wanted the schools to replace the diploma with a portfolio of accomplishment. Many of us employers believed grade inflation and social passing were promoting too many unqualified and unknowing they were not qualified applicants. We wanted to help the schools produce the workers we needed. Over time several partnerships have developed but the “everyone goes to college” message continues to be promoted, now inflamed with “everyone needs to take AP courses.”  Yet, this emphasis is still not producing the skills local businesses need top grow the economy.

ASIDE: students, ask those you know if the job they are doing now is related to the college degree (whether they finished college or not is another matter) they pursued, if they went to college. 



This is an important economic fact. And where do these small and medium businesses go to recruit their workers? Many cannot afford to search too far beyond their local communities, so they seek homegrown local folk.  This was as true in 1991 as it is today. Companies hire locally and are having trouble finding the needed skills sets to enable them to compete. This is where our K-12 systems really can help out…. if they would only drop the college-for-all messaging AND not throw technology at learning as if it were a panacea for the drop out rate. But that’s another digression…. 

Yesterday I took about 20 of our pre-engineering students to a STEM Fest event hosted at a local high tech manufacturing company. As the students worked on a problem solving activity with engineers and technicians from the company I had a chat with the president and owner of the company and its HR director. They affirmed my 20 year old perception: they could not find enough local folks with the requisite skills–skills that do not require a college degree but the ability to problem solve and communicate with others. They can teach them the math and science required for their manufacturing process. Labels like “Algebra II” don’t have much meaning on the production lines. Instead, the ability to read process control documentation, manipulate data arithmetically and interpret charts and communicate the variances so the proper process controls can be implemented. This perception was further reinforced later yesterday evening when I attended a panel presentation on the state’s new STEM LIT initiative.


Yesterday’s discussions with the business owner and later the STEM LIT panel clarified for me an important issue: we tend to speak of STEM as if the needs of the economy are for only the highly skilled in science and math, HARD SKILLS (those based on facts and can be proven). Instead, what I heard and what I have experienced is that the SOFT SKILLS (those based on judgement and open to interpretation) like having a good work ethic, thinking critically, problem solving in a logical manner, oral and written communication, reading and writing are often the more highly valued. If one has the SOFT SKILLS  we can teach you the HARD SKILLS  needed in our business.

I can teach you anything but I can’t teach you to be curious

And, yikes! I also hate it when I hear educators get all excited about putting an iPad in every student’s hands! It’s kind of the same thing: if they don’t know how to use the technology to solve dynamic problems, then what have we really accomplished?

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