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Technology moves fast—and a new study using Burning Glass data suggests that pace of change is what’s really driving the STEM skills gap. 

Much of the debate over the shortage of workers in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) focuses on getting more young people into the field. If STEM jobs are hard to fill, and workers hard to find, then a logical solution would be to get more students into the training pipeline. But another issue, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, is that new skills keep cropping up and making older skills obsolete.  

Harvard University economists David J. Deming and Kadeem L. Noray found that new workers in fields like engineering and computer science earn high wages right out of college. But over the following 10 years that salary premium declines by as much as 50%. Using Burning Glass data, the authors also found that these STEM roles saw the most change in the skills required in job postings. This “task change” means that workers earn the biggest salary premiums when they leave school and have the most up-to-date skills, but lose ground as new skills replace the skills they know. 

This would also explain why STEM workers are in short supply, why they tend to be young, and why many STEM workers (58% according to one study) tend to leave the field after about 10 years, the paper said.  

“Faster technological progress creates a greater sense of shortage, but it is the new STEM skills that are scarce, not the workers themselves,” Deming and Noray write. 

This pattern is faced by the “applied” fields such as computer science, but not by “pure science” fields like biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics where skills may not change as rapidly, the paper said. 

Research conducted by Burning Glass has shown the extent to which the demand for coding and other technology skills is reshaping a wide range of jobs. That has produced a lot of disruption in the labor market. But this study suggests the most cutting-edge workers may actually be more vulnerable to technological change than other fields.  That underscores the challenge higher education institutions face in keeping track of the skills in demand by employers and the value of using real-time data to ensure their programs are aligned with the job market.

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