21st Century Skills and the STEM Craze

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 22, 2016

In the public conversation around education, there has been much talk of the need to provide today’s students with “21st century skills” (see here, here, and here). This term refers to a belief that the skills that will be necessary in the (near) future are likely to be significantly different from what has been needed. This view is perhaps best captured by Alex Epstein, president of the Center for Industrial Progress, who said that “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands.” It follows that if people will need new skills to be successful in a new world, our educational system should equip young people with the skills to navigate our changing society and economy. However, despite widespread use of the term, no widely accepted definition has emerged of what the important skills of tomorrow will be. Therefore, it may be more useful to examine trends in how different skills are rewarded in the economy to get an idea of what young people will need to be prepared for the future.

Returns to Degrees


Image courtesy of Mirko Tobias Schäfer

One way of examining the returns to different skills is by looking at how different college degrees are valued in the labor market. Recently, PayScale.com surveyed holders of 319 different bachelor’s degrees from a range of fields to learn about the average salary in different fields and their figures show some clear trends. All of the top 15 earning degrees were in math or engineering while the lowest paying degrees included social work, counseling, athletic training, and elementary education. This suggests that the most important skills to have are those that can be used to solve complex problems like how to harvest energy and create new technologies.

Resilience in a Dynamic Economy

While patterns in how various degrees are rewarded provide some insight into the skills that young people will need for the workforce of tomorrow, it provides an incomplete picture. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, only about 5% of the US workforce is comprised of scientists and engineers. Thus, while those with skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) observe higher incomes than those with other backgrounds, the economy is much larger and diverse than this sector.

Another way of inferring the types of skills that will likely have value in the future is to study the trends in the occupations that have been resilient in the face of economic changes. A 2003 paper by economists David Autor, Frank Levy, and Richard Murnane studied trends in the automation of occupations, the replacement of human workers with machines (computers or robots) over a 40 year period. The researchers categorized jobs by two criteria. One was whether they were cognitive, requiring “mental” work such as accounting and journalism, or physical, meaning that workers performed manual labor. The second was whether the work involved on those occupations was routine, meaning that tasks could be broken down into a series of repeatable steps, or non-routines, meaning that tasks varied. Interestingly, the authors concluded that routine jobs, regardless of whether they involved manual or cognitive work, were most likely to be replaced by machines. At the same time, jobs that involved cognitive work and were non-routine in nature saw higher demand.

A more recent study by researchers at Oxford investigated a similar question but also estimated the likelihood that over 700 jobs would be automated. The authors computed these estimates by evaluating jobs but used different criteria than cognitive vs. manual and routine vs. non-routine. They found that jobs are less likely to be automated if they require negotiation, helping others, and coming up with clever solutions. Jobs are also at lower risk of automation if they do not require one to “squeeze into a small space.” National Public Radio (NPR) has turned the authors’ findings into an interactive webpage that allows one to different jobs are predicted to fare.

Putting the Pieces Together

By reviewing the earnings to different degrees, one is likely to conclude, as many have, that knowledge in STEM fields will be the key to success in the 21st century economy. But while those with STEM skills are likely to earn higher salaries, these skills do not necessarily guarantee long-term prosperity. Take accounting for instance. While 4 different types of accounting degrees are in the top half of the PayScale rankings mentioned above (ranked as high as 31), the Oxford study predicts that there is a 98% chance that accounting will become automated within 20 years. On the other hand, elementary school teachers, currently near the bottom of the PayScale rankings, have less than a 1% chance of being replaced by a machine.

While technical (STEM) skills will indeed be important for the future, there are clearly other skills that will also be valuable. Thus, in the movement to teach students important skills like computer programming and advanced mathematics, policymakers and curriculum designers should not lose sight of what will be indispensable skills, those that help people to interact with one another.

Contact Jason: burnsja6@msu.edu

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.