In December, The Washington Post ran an opinion piece exploring the results of several in-house studies conducted by tech giant Google that raised some questions over the conventional wisdom surrounding the importance of a STEM education on careers in the digital age.
“No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed,” writes Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Looking at the results of multi-year studies conducted by Google into its own employment practices, including hiring standards and team productivity, Davidson noted Google’s own findings that a hard skills from a STEM education were not as important as softer skills such as curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence.
On January 18th, NBC News THINK published a thought piece penned by Google CEO Sundar Pichai in which Pichai argues that the traditional stance on education, whereby students would graduate from academic institutions with the assumption that they had learned lifelong career skills, is no longer tenable given the rapid changes posed by technology. Pichai argued in favor of moving away from “code and intensive degrees” towards a more “lightweight, focused model” featuring apprenticeship and certification programs, some of which can be completed in less than one year.
To be sure, there are aspects of Google’s stance on education which do seem to be in line with the current reality facing job seekers in today’s digital economy. Wage earners today are more likely to work in more jobs over the course of their careers and the average time spent at a single job has been decreasing. Between January 2014 and January 2016, average employee tenures dropped from 4.6 years down to 4.2 years according to statistics reported from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
An April 2016 blog post by business-oriented social media platform LinkedIn indicated that college graduates between 2006 and 2010 worked for an average of nearly three different companies during the first five years of their professional career. By comparison, those graduating college between 1986 and 1990 worked for less than two different companies on average during the first five years of their career; over the first 10 years of their career, those same graduates worked for an average of nearly 2.5 different companies. So it seems clear that job seekers today should expect to be adaptable to a change in work environment every few years.
However, Google’s stance on the importance of STEM educations in the current economy seems to be a little out of touch given recent research on the number of jobs available to those with STEM educations. A BLS occupational outlook report from Spring 2014 indicated that occupations related to science, technology, mathematics and engineering are projected to grow by more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022. This includes positions such as actuaries, software developers, aerospace engineers, conservation scientists, physicists, nuclear technicians, STEM teachers and much more. Further, these jobs tend to pay much higher wages than the median income. The Spring 2014 BLS report reflected a median annual wage of nearly $76,000 for workers in STEM-related occupations, more than double the median wage for all occupations during the study period.
So why doesn’t Google think that a STEM education is all that valuable for its workers when all of the labor statistics seem to suggest otherwise?
One potential explanation for this is the fact that research and development does not seem to be all that important to Google’s current and massive fortune. The third quarter 2017 earnings report released by Google parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL) shows that Google advertising revenues make up the overwhelming bulk of Alphabet’s overall revenues, accounting for $24.1 billion of the company’s $27.8 billion in third quarter revenues. For the nine months ending September 30th 2017, Google advertising accounted for $64.1 billion of Alphabet’s $78.5 billion total revenues for the period. Other Bets, which is supposed to be Google’s division of diverse innovative companies, contributed less than $800 million for the entire first nine months of 2017.
What seems to have proven to be more valuable to Google than the education of its employees, in fact, includes positive outcomes on challenges to the validity of targeted advertising patents asserted against the company. Perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that Google would take this anti-STEM stance. With such little revenue attributable to innovation and so much revenue derived from adopting patented technology of others it is no wonder Google does not value a STEM education.