When it comes to churning out young workers with college degrees in math and science, the United States lags well behind other advanced democracies, ranking just behind Turkey and Spain, according to a new analysis.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development analyzed education rates in its member countries and found that the U.S. is below average in the relative number of 25- to 34-year-old workers who have a degree in so-called STEM fields such as science, engineering, computing and statistics.
That’s a potential problem because research has shown that innovation in any economy depends on how many workers have such degrees, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
“It is something that we should be concerned about,” Ehrenberg said
There are about 1,472 math and science grads for every 100,000 employed 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States, according to the data. The compares to more than 3,555 in Korea, which leads the chart, according to the OECD figures based on 2009 data.
The United States falls between Spain and Iceland on the chart, and is noticeably lower than the OECD average. The figures do not reflect how many people with STEM degrees are actually employed in their field or using the skills they learned.
Jobs available for graduates with degrees in math, science and engineering tend to pay well, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. But there are plenty of ways in which American culture dissuades its most promising kids from going into those fields.
For starters, many young Americans believe they can make more money with a degree in a business, finance or a related field, Carnevale said. Americans also seem to place more value on jobs in those fields.
“(If you’re) a smart high school kid, doing well, your image of what you want to do is not to wear a white smock every day and sit on a stool with a beaker,” Carnevale said. “You’re in a culture that drives you toward more convivial and more social kinds of work, and it pays better.”
Young Americans may also not be getting enough exposure to math and science, said Cornell’s Ehrenberg.
At the K-12 level, he said, it can be tough to recruit great math and science teachers because college graduates who specialize in those areas can probably find better-paying work outside teaching.
In addition, some students may have a hard time finding the right role models in college math and science departments, said Ehrenberg, who noted that many science and math faculties are dominated by white and Asian men.
Ehrenberg said many colleges and universities have tried to recruit faculty from more diverse backgrounds and to develop more family-friendly policies to retain women and non-traditional students in the fields.
“I think role models do matter,” Ehrenberg said.
For now, at least, Carnevale said many companies are simply poaching talented young science and math graduates from other countries. But as those countries ramp up their own businesses, that may be tougher to do.
Still, he said it also may be hard to fight the biases that have come to value lucrative non-scientific fields such as finance and law.
“A labor market is a social institution as well as an economic one,” he said.