Maybe STEM Isn’t the Future After All. Soft Skills Are Coming on Strong

Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math grew strongly from 1980 to 2000, but not since.

Turns out that soft skills aren’t so soft after all. New research finds that from 2000 to 2012, jobs that require “non-cognitive” skills, such as the ability to communicate and work in teams, grew much faster than jobs mainly requiring skills measurable by IQ or achievement tests.

Our picture of the job market is still shaped by the period from 1980 to 2000, when there was strong growth of employment in STEM occupations—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But things went into reverse over the next dozen years, says David Deming, a Harvard University economist who summarized several recent studies by him and others in an article in the December issue of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s NBER Reporter

That’s not to say students can ignore their math homework. “We are not witnessing an end to the importance of cognitive skills—rather, strong cognitive skills are increasingly a necessary—but not a sufficient—condition for obtaining a good, high-paying job,” Deming writes. “You also need to have social skills.”

David Deming, Harvard University

Notice in this chart how many of the occupations that shrank from 2000 to 2012 as a share of the labor force are in CAPITAL LETTERS. Those are the ones that mainly require STEM skills. Down at the bottom of the chart, only a few of the jobs that grew the most were STEM jobs.

This chart is my adaptation of one that appears in Deming’s NBER Reporter article. His version ranks occupations by the increase or decrease in their share of the labor market. For example, teachers had the biggest percentage-point share increase, from 3 percent of all jobs to 3.6 percent of all jobs, so teachers stand out in his version. I rearranged the numbers to show the percentage growth in each occupation’s share. That puts economists and survey researchers first, with 137 percent growth in their share of the labor force, albeit from a much smaller base: from about a tenth of a percent to a little more than two-tenths of a percent.

Deming writes:

Why are social skills valued in the labor market, and why have they become more important in recent years? One possible cause is technological change. In a review article about the history of workplace automation, David Autor argues that new technologies generally increase the importance of skills and tasks for which there is still no good substitute. Machines are generally quite good — much better than humans — at performing routine, codifiable tasks according to a set of explicit rules. However, people are still much better at open-ended tasks that require flexibility, creativity, and judgment. Often we perform these tasks with great skill despite lacking any explicit understanding of "rules," as when we divine the motives of a person we just met, or when we quickly determine whether it is appropriate to laugh at an off-color joke.

One might quibble with some of his categorizations. Economists are pretty nerdy, but they are in the non-STEM category, perhaps because they were paired with survey researchers, who need people skills to get people to answer questions. In an interview, Deming says, “I always joke around that around academics, I might have above-average social skills—but relative to the general population, I’m probably just average.”

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.
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