Study science and math to get ahead in the future of work, right?

When you read accounts of the fierce competition for science and engineering grads, if you are a humanities or social science type (like me) you could be forgiven for slapping yourself on the forehead for forgoing the chance to earn six-figure salaries and be provided with ping-pong tables and free food for your entire career. But is getting that degree in science, tech, engineering or math (the so-called STEM subjects) really the best bet for long-term career success?
If you look at trends in the future of work, then maybe not, argued Daniel Jelski, a professor of chemistry at SUNY New Paltz, on New Geography recently. Despite being a science guy himself, Jelski looks at the ways work is changing and comes to an iconoclastic conclusion. He begins by laying out the basic forces he sees shaping the career landscape in the next decades:

Let’s start with the three Laws of Future Employment. Law #1: People will get jobs doing things that computers can’t do.
Law #2: A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers. (But also in cheaper and better products and a higher standard of living for American consumers.)
Law #3: Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.

But instead of looking at these laws and suggesting students study the math and science needed to be one of those running the machines many fear are taking our jobs, Jelski comes to a different conclusion. He acknowledges that the number of science and math grads in the U.S. has been flat over several decades, but he disagrees that this means more students should be encouraged into those fields. Pointing out that competition in these areas is increasingly global, he notes that the amount of American tech and science geeks isn’t relevant. But the global number is, and by this measure competition will be fierce, especially as many technical tasks are now done by computers:

Laws #1 & 2 predict that there will likely be fewer STEM jobs in the future – they are both easily computerized and tradable. People will always be employed in STEM disciplines, many of them highly paid, but they’ll be paid for smarts rather than education. The disciplines will be much more competitive, with older and less talented workers left on the sidelines. Tom Friedman and Alex Tabarrok, reflecting conventional wisdom, are mistaken in maintaining that increasing STEM education is a key to future economic competitiveness.

“So if computerized, tradable skills won’t create much new employment, if any, what will?” he asks. The answer is “non-tradable skills that can’t be computerized. . . . these jobs depend on human-human interaction — empathy.” Counseling, teaching and management are examples. So who is best prepared for them?
Jelski tells of a student he had in a chemistry class, an English major who was busy writing a novel about cowboys while learning about chemical reactions on the side. “Conventional wisdom says this guy is all wet,” writes Jelski, but he feels this kid’s odd combo of interests in cowboys and chemistry might actually be a career winner. Not because anyone needs many cowboys these days, obviously, but because

the skill set needed to write a novel, of which writing may be the least of it. He has to have something to write about, which means nurturing a general curiosity about the world — not just cowboys, but apparently also chemistry. He learns to be a keen observer of people: their appearance, what they wear, their character, mannerisms, and language. He develops the self-discipline and self-confidence to finish a project because it is intrinsically important, not because people say “Wow, that’s wonderful. You’re writing a novel!” Because of his novel my student becomes expert in many skills that can translate into a wonderful career.

The conclusion of the post (which is well worth a read in full) is that skills rather than education count, and writing and empathy are among the skills least likely to be mastered by computers. Counseling might beat computer science in the future of work, according to Jelski, but critics could point out that clinical psychology majors currently have the highest rate of unemployment of any college degree and that being an empathetic, sociable engineer might be the best bet of all.
Would you push your kid toward engineering or empathy for a more future-proof career?
Image courtesy of Flickr user UC Davis College of Engineering