Our Fixation on STEM Is Leaving a Lot of Real World Problems Unaddressed
As companies deploy technology to improve their bottom line, they should take care of their most important assets -- their people. After all, they keep telling us in their corporate videos, job postings and annual reports that we’re their most important asset.
While it is fine to use technology to improve processes to make people more productive, it is also necessary to involve people in the changes ahead. The problem is, companies tend to lean on people with STEM backgrounds only. Educational institutions are on board with producing STEM graduates, and society puts pressure on students to take STEM-related courses to feed the technology boom ahead of us. Many governments around the Western world and emerging regions are investing heavily in technology efforts.
While the tech boom is coming, and as a competitive nation we should be prepared, are we going overboard? Two thoughts come to mind:
1. If everyone is in tech, who will fix my sink?
With such a focus on science, tech, engineering and math, who will provide all the jobs that society needs to function? These blue-collar jobs are, in some countries, are already in such high demand that getting a plumber scheduled can take an unusually long time. A recent CBS article describes the situation in Long Island, New York, on this very problem. Supply and demand suggests that these types of jobs will become high-paying jobs, but this balance can take generations to level out.
In the same vein, family businesses are no longer attractive to the younger family members. No one wants to take over the farm, the family grocery store or the shoe repair shop. Nope -- they are off to Wall Street or Silicon Valley.
2. Just because it is technically possible, does it mean we should do it?
Silicon Valley is already feeling a little bit of heat over creating products that invent a problem instead of solving real-world problems. Juicero caught the eye of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors with the idea of a machine that could squeeze packs filled with bits of fruit. Turns out you can squeeze the packs by hand faster. It’s a silly example, so let’s look at a more serious one: online data.
The biggest minds in data analytics figured out that your online data is a product and could be sold to advertisers. Leaving aside the question about whether users have given consent or not, the ability to collect data, analyze it and sell it is technically possible. But ethically, should it be done? What if these companies had hired -- and listened to -- sociologists and anthropologists to evaluate possible societal outcomes instead of focusing on data scientists and engineers?
These two thoughts center around the societal impact when such a focus in one direction has an adverse impact overall. From a decline in people in much needed jobs to the kinds of jobs that tech companies hire, a sole focus on STEM, while turning out a lot of tech workers who can do a lot of fancy things with data and the internet, is not serving society very well.
Companies that want to use technology to improve their processes, make better connections with customers and improve their bottom line should ensure they have a healthy mix of STEM and social impact talent in their ranks. We also need a healthy mix of job types as the impact of blue-collar job shortages also has an impact on how society will function. It is the diversity of talented people that is a company’s greatest asset.