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STEM is important but not a silver bullet

Yes of course we should be pouring money into STEM – science, technology, engineering, math – teaching and curricula, reconfiguring our K-12 system to focus on those subjects and encouraging, nay pushing, our little geniuses into tech-intense careers.

After all, why should the next generation be any more exempt from job insecurity, industry sector instability, outsourcing and skills obsolescence than those who chased careers in manufacturing, retailing, finance, natural-resource production or, ahem, media?

The headlong push into STEM, as detailed in stories last weekend by the TNT’s Debbie Cafazzo, as the secret to educational reform and post-high-school success juxtaposes in an interesting fashion with the news that the stalwart, mainstay, foundational company of this region’s tech sector, Microsoft, is cutting 18,000 jobs this year.

Of that total, 12,500 are related to the acquisition of Nokia’s devices business, the Finnish mobile-phone maker that Microsoft bought earlier this year. That’s not so much a shock, in that virtually every merger, no matter how healthy and dominant the involved players, results in layoffs. How else do you expect them to pay the debt and executive bonuses? To the extent the layoffs occur wherever Nokia operates, that’s their problem.

But the remaining layoffs, as well as a change in operating strategy in which Microsoft says it will slash its reliance on temporary and contract workers, is definitely our problem. Microsoft may still hire for specific projects or tasks, but the resounding message from Redmond these days is that, at least in terms of employment, Microsoft is in no-growth mode.

Which, you would think, might raise a few questions in the minds of students being fed a steady diet of STEM – or at least in the minds of those who have given the slightest thought to what they’ll be doing once they return their caps and gowns.

Questions like: “Why am I working so hard to study subjects for which there won’t be jobs? How does this make me any different from the French Renaissance literature grads slinging coffee? Or from those steel, auto and lumber mill workers who thought landing one of those jobs had them set for life? Why is there an echo in here?”

Those are the questions that help fuel the view that STEM is just one more edu-fad in a field prone to them, an obsession du jour to be replaced by something else tomorrow. Such skepticism is additionally prompted by recurring accounts of the tech industry’s predilection for using imported or outsourced labor, cheaper and easily expandable or expendable as the situation requires, along with constant cries to increase the number of H-1b visas (although Microsoft may have singlehandedly squelched that cause for the moment).

So here’s where we give you the “on the one hand, on the other hand” treatment.

STEM education does matter because just about every job these days – even coffee-slinging positions held by those heavily indebted by their humanities degrees – involves an element of tech. It’s not just those directly employed in jobs and by companies thought of as “tech” that need exposure to and training in “tech” subjects.

As one who tracks manufacturing quite closely, your columnist can attest that the sector is as tech-intense as they come. The manufacturing community has been making the point until it’s hoarse, and the message is now starting to seep out that between the way products are designed and produced and the materials used to make them, this is a high-tech industry.

In addition, as big as Microsoft is and as large the numbers of job cuts it’s contemplating are, Microsoft is not the be-all, end-all of what we’ve come to think of as high tech. Other companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are hiring, as are hundreds of mid-sized players and thousands of small start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures. Those companies may thrive, struggle or disappear. Microsoft itself may stagnate, decline or come roaring back as a leaner but growing company. One company does not define high-tech any more than names like Kresge or Frederick & Nelson defined the sum total of retailing.

But the Microsoft experience does bring us to the other-hand portion of this discussion.

STEM education will do a lot. It will not, however, make its graduates immune to business failures, economic cycles, competitive threats or new technologies that replace old, as well as the occupational upheavals that come with them. Finland is considered one of the world’s top countries for STEM, but that didn’t keep Nokia at the pinnacle of the mobile-device industry.

Sell STEM as a panacea and antidote to those disruptions, as a can’t-miss lottery ticket to job security and fat paychecks, and the brutal disappointments the world has a way of dispensing will quickly convince people STEM is last week’s trend.

Structure STEM as a way to give students the basic skills to handle the job, whatever job it is in whatever industry they land, and you’ve got a chance at making the changes stick to the benefit of the system’s graduates. It’s not the sexier message, but it’s the more realistic one.

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