America's economy needs more than STEM

Tuesday , August 22, 2017 - 9:37 AM

JEFF STEAGALL, special to the Standard-Examiner

For several years, government and education have touted the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines as the saviors of the American economy. By devoting more educational resources into STEM fields, the argument goes, America will position itself to stay on the cutting edge of the exciting new technologies that will form the heart of the 21st century economy.

The argument has considerable validity. American students’ mathematics scores have been falling for decades when compared to those of K-12 students in other countries. It is important to motivate students to do better by demonstrating how it can lead to good jobs.

Furthermore, the 10 Utah occupations that most lack qualified professionals annually include five types of engineers. Whenever one sector accounts for half the qualified-candidate-deficit positions, there is a definite supply-side problem. It makes sense to emphasize those opportunities to students — the shortages represent great career opportunities.

Moreover, given the cumulative nature of developing a deep understanding of science and math, it is necessary to begin the STEM emphasis early in the K-12 curriculum and to maintain it as students progress, ensuring that they enter college prepared to take even higher-level courses.

In addition to such rational arguments, the emphasis on STEM pulls on the emotional heartstrings of Americans. American power began to climb as technological improvements such as telegraphs, steam engines, trans-continental railroads, efficient steel production, oil exploration, world-class automobiles, and so many other innovations were adopted more vigorously here than in most other nations. Why shouldn’t economic success during the next century be based on scientific and technological innovations such as those that made the U.S. the world’s most powerful nation?

The answer is that developing the technologies was not the entire story in the past, and it will not be in the future. It wasn’t so much the invention of the automobile that allowed America to dominate that market globally for a good portion of the 20th century. Rather, Henry Ford’s innovation of the moving assembly line dramatically reduced production costs and, therefore, created a huge middle-class market for cars, which inaugurated American leadership in the automotive sector.

Similarly, it was not a loss of the technological edge that led America to lose its leadership in the automotive sector in the ’70s and ’80s. Japan evolved from a country that could not produce a decent car in the ’50s and ’60s to the global leader in automotive quality by the early ’80s. Japanese companies accomplished this not with technologically superior cars, but with cars whose quality exceeded that of their more expensive American counterparts. By embracing a new approach called “quality management,” Japanese management ensured that its cars were of a consistent quality that increased over time.

Interestingly, this quality management approach was created by an American, W. Edwards Deming. When he approached Detroit with the concept, he was told, not so politely, that American manufacturing didn’t need any such innovation. Deming went to Japan and transformed the industry there instead.

Both Ford and Deming had fundamentally new ideas that would transform their industries. But the ideas were also fundamentally new approaches to management, not technology, within the automotive sector.

Business succeeds when STEM personnel pair with business executives to generate newer, more efficient ways to produce, market, distribute, and sell products. In many ways, American’s business leadership has been due to its openness to new ways of doing business and new ways of managing, marketing and financing firms. Businesses must also manage their human resources more effectively.

STEM alone cannot save the American economy. The single-mindedness of the STEM message in K-12 education is clouding this issue, obscuring for many students the variety of occupations that will be just as lucrative as STEM jobs.

A Weber State University student drove this point home clearly a couple weeks ago. “In high school,” she noted, “we got the idea that the only way to make a decent salary was to be in the STEM fields. So that’s what I studied when I got to WSU.” Unfortunately, she did not enjoy those fields. After learning about high starting salaries in business, she switched her major and now loves her classes enough to be a club leader. “I just wish someone had told me in high school that I could earn a good salary outside of STEM.”

Emphasizing STEM is a smart approach. Focusing on STEM while ensuring that students explore careers in fields that turn new scientific knowledge or inventions into commercial processes and products is even smarter.

Dr. Jeff Steagall is the dean of Weber State University’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics and a professor of economics. Twitter: @SteagallJeff.

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