When will “talent development” be a real issue?

I would like to step back for a moment and look at the general trends in undergraduate and graduate education in the sciences.

Today, the U.S. is not producing enough science and engineering graduates. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics reports (September 1016), the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded increased by 63% between 1995 and 2015. The number of undergraduate degrees granted, as a percentage of all degrees, in the physical sciences and engineering increased only 52% and 57%, respectively. One bright spot, biological and biomedical sciences did see a 72% increase. Looking at the numbers, 358,000 students received Bachelor degrees in business compared to 98,000 for engineering, 30,000 for physical science and technology, and 105,000 for biological and biomedical sciences in 2014-2015. If the demand for scientist continues to grow, the shortage of talent will continue unless more students develop the skills needed for these industries.

Today, STEM graduates have a multitude of professional opportunities. As a chemist, I’m happy to see that unemployment is quite low, with only three to four percent of chemist or chemical engineers seeking employment (ChemCensus: 2015, American Chemical Society). High employment is excellent news for chemist and scientist in general; however, the number of chemists employed with only a bachelors degree has decreased significantly over the last 30 years, and this trend reflects the changing work environment.

When we think of the traditional path, students would complete their degree and move into the work force and be expected to execute specialized tasks: preparing samples, running analytical test, monitoring processes, etc. Today, employers expect their STEM workforce to not only have strong STEM knowledge, but also understand program management, be articulate communicators—both written and verbal and be able to work with marketing, sales, and business development groups.

Many of these skills, if not most, are not fully develop in an undergraduate STEM program. The good news today is that students have many paths to advance their careers.

The simplest option is to develop these skills while on the job. Larger companies often have corporate learning centers with structured training programs that deal with non-technical job functions such as corporate communication, best practices for meetings, project management, corporate sales training, marketing fundamentals, and basic finance. Technical training might include advanced Excel, SAS, or database workshops. Organizations may also sponsor graduate certificate programs. These are opportunities where one is getting “paid to learn.” (If you are looking at employment options, these benefits are worth asking about and using.)

If learning on the job fills one side of the scale, full-time graduate school is on the other. In the physical sciences, this has traditionally been the realm of doctoral programs while engineering has favored the master’s degree. The National Center for Educational Statistics (September 1016) reports, of the total number of master’s degrees awarded in their field of study, engineering has been steady at approximately 30% over the last twenty-years, while physical science and science technologies have decreased from 20% to 16%. Biological and biomedical sciences have seen master’s degrees increase from 9% to 11%. For doctoral degrees, engineering has remained steady at approximately 7% of total degrees awarded in the field; physical sciences at 15% and biological and biomedical sciences at 7%. Full-time study for both the master’s and doctoral degrees require a substantial time commitment—two to four years for a master’s degree and four to eight years for a doctoral degree. While the student’s research may focus on academic problems, there are excellent opportunities for those who can make the transition to non-academic careers. Unfortunately, outside of engineering, graduate degrees focus on academic research.

An increasingly common path for STEM graduates who enter the workforce is to find opportunities “outside of the lab” where they leverage their technical and analytical skills in the world of business. For many scientists and engineers, pursuing an MBA can round out their skill set and open doors to management careers.

In the late 1990’s, there was recognition that physical science and science technologies would benefit from a professional master’s degree; this led to the formation of the Professional Science Master’s initiative in 1997 that now includes over 356 programs at 165 institutions (including one at the University of Utah where I work). A significant difference between PSM programs and the traditional physical science M.S. or Ph.D. is the focus on industry based projects and internships as part of the degree in place of an academic thesis—while still completing graduate level courses in their scientific field. Additionally, students supplement their science courses with graduate level training in communication, leadership, writing and other areas often neglected in traditional STEM programs yet valued by employers.

There is a consistent message, both from businesses and policy makers that leading industries (biotechnology, data science, cyber security, software engineering, and others) can not fill high skilled positions. Why?

We need to work with students early. These careers require people to follow a challenging academic path that probably starts with high school math. In these new jobs for the 21st century, you WILL use algebra every day (and statistics and calculus, too). Strong math skills developed in high school are a good proxy for success in undergraduate science and engineering, but a four-year science degree is not enough in fields where the technical and intellectual challenges are large. Modern industries have moved toward specialization since the industrial revolution, and now that specialization takes longer than what can be obtained in a four-year undergraduate program. Everyone—students, teachers, employers—needs to understand the road to success is long.

It takes WORK to push through scientific and technological challenges. It can be mentally (and physically) exhausting. I often find myself in the role of “coach,” and it is rewarding to see determined students working to advance their careers by developing new skills. They will be positioned to fill the employment needs of today’s industries. It is emotionally satisfying when you succeed in solving problems—which what most scientist and engineers do.

Grading on a curve

Grading on a curve. The term gets thrown around a lot, especially on a university campus; however, it has meaning beyond academics.

Students believe grading on a curve helps those at the lower end of the distribution.

In academics, it is a measure of student ability compared to their peers so when faculty grade an exam they don’t necessarily care about the absolute grade, but the distribution of scores. For the record, grading on a curve is hard work. You have to calculate the class statistics—mean, standard deviation, etc.—and then determine how many points needs to be added to each test to move the curve to the desired point. (In reality, “scaling” is more often used with the same number of points being added to all scores to change the numerator, or questions “thrown out” to modify the denominator.) I graded on a curve—students on the low end of the curve loved it… students on the high end of the curve hated it because what usually happened is that it helped low scoring students more than it helped those at the top. (For the record, I often felt the need for grading on a curve was due to my inability to craft a good test, not just a reflection on the students abilities.)

But, we are also graded on a curve professionally, and that grade is most often expressed in dollars.

Where is this going? When I take the time to reflect, I ask myself three things:

  1. Do I like what I am doing?
  2. Am I being compensated fairly?
  3. If number two is no, what do I need to change?

Do I Like what I’m doing? Sometimes, when the answer to question one was a “yes,” I stopped. This decision may not have been right financially, after all, if you are treating employment as Me, Inc., the goal should be to maximize shareholder value (being a shareholder of one). Trading time and talents for money should dictate finding the maximum return on those valuable commodities. For the majority of my career, the answer has been a “yes, but…” which leads to question two.

Am I being compensated fairly? The problem is finding the right metric. For most of my professional career, I have used the American Chemical Society (ACS) Salary Calculator. This tool is a member only resource I have found very useful. New graduates and experienced professionals can use the online tool and it covers academic and non-academic positions, degree type, the degree year, geographic location, and additional job details. The output is not just the median but also a breakdown by centiles. Today, Glassdoor.com, LinkedIn.com, and other online services are providing basic information (usually, a salary range) or an estimation of your market value.

Is the information accurate? The ACS Salary Calculator is the most direct as it uses data from their annual employment survey using a large member base. From a limited sampling of positions for which I know the salary ranges, Glassdoor.com and LinkedIn.com offer useful information to make comparisons. So this rephrases the question to “where am I on the curve?”

I’ve taken comfort at being “above the mean”—or median. Except, of course, those times when I stopped at question one because the gig was just too exciting to worry about money. (I remember my father making the following statement to my musician brother when he stated he had a “gig:” “If you’re getting paid, it’s not a gig, it’s a job.” (Gigs can be a lot of fun if you don’t need the money.)

Being used by an organization is not a good feeling, but if you’re on the low-side of the salary curve, what can you do?

What do I need to change? Unlike a test, in the work world, you can’t rely on the grader to modify the curve. You can ask for a raise and attempt to justify the change based on your performance against the curve, but I can’t think if a case where this worked. The most direct way is getting an offer to work at a similar job for a new company for a higher salary. Again, based on a small sample of managers I’ve discussed this issue with, most are not willing to negotiate based on a competing offer. If you are ready to change companies, it’s a good way to move on the curve. But what if you like the company where you work?

Increasing your capabilities is another way to move on the curve. Are there opportunities at work to learn new skills that will make you more productive or allow you to contribute elsewhere in the group or organization? If not, what can you do outside of work? I have used a fair amount of personal time for professional development. The effort might not lead to an immediate improvement; however, building new skills and solving significant problems should be rewarded. If it’s not, look for another gig—I mean job.

Always ask questions. As a successful scientist or engineer or (insert your field here), what do I need to learn to manage projects or teams effectively? How can I better support my company (business unit) to satisfy our customers, both internal and external?

Which curve are you on? How do you move on the current curve or switch to the next curve?

Of course, you can also jump to a new curve. You may be in the 90% percentile for engineers in the world-wide-widget industry, but if the widget industry pays comparatively low salaries, it’s very likely you won’t be able to move much further on the curve. Unless your skills are directly transferable, you’ll probably need to do something that puts you on a different curve.

Changing where you’re at on any curve, or changing curves, takes time, effort and usually a monetary investment.

  • The time commitment can be substantial: one, two or even 10 years!
  • It takes real effort. It’s much easier to go golfing or skiing on the weekend than to learn skills you’ll use only at work.
  • Funding may be a significant obstacle, but with planning or finding “next best alternatives,” progress is possible.