One of the motivations for improving STEM education that I’ve briefly noted before (e.g. here and here) is the expectation of lots of future jobs requiring STEM skills. This is important, though I think it’s less important than conveying an appreciation of nature that a scientific perspective brings, and imparting skills that allow thinking “scientifically” about problems. But about jobs, there’s an interesting essay in this week’s Nature titled “China needs workers more than academics” from Qiang Wang at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography:
(It’s freely accessible.) He writes,
The situation in China seems typical of a worldwide trend in which the economic slump has seen the title of ‘graduate’ become almost synonymous with ‘soon-to-be unemployed’…
In Guangdong province, the shortfall of skilled factory workers rose to more than a million people this year. Meanwhile, Chinese teenagers continue to enroll in universities, lured by the promised rewards of an academic qualification in science or other subjects…
The Chinese people have long believed that higher education is a way to reach the top of the country’s pyramid-shaped social structure and join the elite ranks of officialdom …. But whereas academic education is valued, vocational education is held in deep and wide contempt.
It’s of course not good for there to be a vast mismatch between education and jobs, and it’s also unfortunate that vocational education is not highly regarded (in the U.S. as well). I wonder, though: does the general approach of planning educational aims around specific occupational expectations work? Are there good case studies of this? Is it a meaningful thing to do, or does it just highlight, in practice, the difficulty of centralized prediction of technological and social trends?
I’m also rather puzzled by the “shortfall” of millions of factory workers. Presumably, salaries should rise until these jobs are appealing enough to workers, and the speed of vocational training being fast compared to obtaining a university degree should allow people to respond to these cues. What’s stopping this from happening?