Guest Column

STEM-related degrees aren’t the future

January 12, 2018
| By Lou Glazer |
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Crain's Detroit Business recently reported Gov. Rick Snyder is going to propose making coding a foreign language credit in high schools. This would be part of a major initiative to push more Michigan high school and college students into computer science occupations.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, technology entrepreneur Mark Cuban said: “The people who are writing software, unless you are doing advanced things, they are gone. I personally think there is going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering. When the data is being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. In particular, experts in philosophy or foreign languages will ultimately command the most interest from employers in the next decade.”

So Cuban, who started his career as a programmer, believes sooner rather than later the occupations our governor wants more and more of our kids to pursue are going to be automated away. That what is coming is the automation of automation. That software — not humans —increasingly will do the coding and programming. That what humans will be needed for is not math-based work but rather understanding what to do with data. And that comes from the liberal arts — including foreign languages — not STEM-based skills.

Who knows if Cuban is right about the degree and timing of when automation will take over coding and programming. I sure don't. But I sure wouldn't dismiss him. There is a reasonable chance he is right. What we know is that automation is going to transform work. We just don't know what occupations and when.

Cuban’s findings are consistent with Google’s research on what skills matter most to the success of their current employees. Big surprise: it wasn't STEM. A terrific Washington Post column details Google’s findings:

“Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

“In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

“Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.”

It’s far past time Michigan policymakers and business leaders stop telling our kids if they don't get a STEM-related degree they are better off not getting a four-year degree. It simply is not accurate. (Not to mention that many of their kids are getting non-STEM-related four-year degrees.) And instead, begin to tell all kids what is accurate: that the foundation skills today and even more so tomorrow — as Google found out — are not narrow occupation-specific skills but rather are broad skills related to the ability to work with others, think critically and be a lifelong learner. The kind of skills that are best built with a broad liberal arts education.

If Michigan is going to be a place with a broad middle class, if employers are going to have the supply of skilled workers they need and if Michigan is going to be a place once again where kids regularly do better than their parents, it will happen because the state made a commitment to provide an education system for all, from birth through college, that builds rigorous broad skills that are the foundation of successful 40-year careers.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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