Public-policy makers point to growing concerns of U.S. schools’ continued failures to produce top science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students. This raises fears that the country will fall behind in the production of technology workers and that U.S. universities will not be able to meet the growing demand in the technology sector, and has led to a call for a return to Cold War education initiatives designed to boost the performance and production of STEM students. While this makes for good press, it is far from being the case, conclude researchers at Rutgers and Georgetown in their paper “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” released this week.

According to the paper, U.S. universities are actually producing too many STEM students vis-à-vis the employment demand. What has occurred, though, is that the top students have moved to other fields, a trend which began in the mid-to-late-nineties, not coincidentally the birth of the internet era.

“The problem may not be that there are too few STEM qualified college graduates, but rather that STEM firms are unable to attract them,” write the paper’s authors.

The problems that companies in traditional STEM firms have in recruiting top students is that they cannot offer what companies outside the traditional STEM definition can in terms of pay, benefits, stability and prestige.

Perhaps the problem is not that these students are truly leave the field, but that what constitutes a STEM job has radically changed in the last ten years. Does the engineering student who does SEO optimization for an internet marketing company count as being a technology worker?

By Mark Alvarez