What to do about the Catch-22 STEM Job Market?

Now how do we BREAK this vicious cycle?? If the statistic remains true that only 3% of college graduates get jobs in their fields, then how are the other 97% supposed to BREAK this vicious cycle? Especially in an economy where there may very well not BE enough truly entry-level positions for the number of STEM graduates that all universities, major and minor, are cranking out every year.

— Penny’s Comment on The Catch-22 STEM Job Market

This is my response to Penny’s question which seems worthy of broader circulation as a standalone post:


I think some of the issues that you write about relate to the general political and economic problems afflicting the United States and the world at the moment. Many of these economic and political issues are beyond the scope of a Math Blog post, although I have touched on them occasionally in past posts. I will focus more specifically on the Catch-22 STEM Job Market and STEM-specific issues below.

Fight the Purple Squirrel!

Purple squirrel is a term from the human resources business for a job for which the requirements — skills, experience, credentials and so on — are so extensive and nit-picky that probably no such applicant exists or a qualified applicant is exceptionally rare. In many cases, the requirements are unjustified. Many STEM job postings appear to be purple squirrel hunts.

If STEM employers were less picky and more realistic in hiring, they could probably save a significant amount of money on salaries and fill STEM positions more quickly. This would probably be a mixed blessing for STEM workers. It would be easier to find a job but salaries would be lower in general. Probably these days many people would be glad to have a job and dispense with the unnecessary and demeaning “purple squirrel” job hunt.

Unfortunately, these hiring patterns are deeply rooted. The same patterns appear to have held for over twenty years in STEM fields, especially software engineering. I have personally experienced them since my first job hunt in the early 1990’s.

STEM Work is Not Football

STEM Work is Not Football

STEM Work is Not Football

There is an unstated — or at least rarely stated — belief that all STEM fields are rather like competitive sports. There is a relatively short learning curve such as for football (US or European) or basketball. Even exceptionally complex fields like molecular biology or certain types of software development are seen as relatively “easy” in some sense. This is coupled to a belief that there is a sort of mental horsepower that is basically a physical attribute like muscle strength that declines fairly rapidly with age as with performance in football and many other physical sports. Given these two beliefs, the ideal employee in a STEM field is a narrow specialist with 3-5 years of experience, still in his or her twenties, still at their physical and presumed mental peak.

For example, code.org’s inspirational video has a long lead-in with luminaries such as Bill Gates seemingly explaining how “easy” software development is (the video is heavily edited and the speakers may have been taken out of context) and explicitly comparing coding to basketball. One of the speakers is NBA basketball star Chris Bosh who codes on the side.

The code.org video does not point out the downside of this analogy to sports. You might become the next Kareem Abdul Jabbar but more likely you will become one of legions of has-beens and never-were’s struggling to make a living after thirty-five, not to mention the many high school basketball stars who never play professionally. Many basketball stars have gone bankrupt; by his own account, Kareem Abdul Jabbar suffered from bad investment advice.

These two beliefs militate strongly against both entry-level employees and employees with more than a few years of experience. These beliefs provide a plausible explanation for the remarkable persistence of the same distribution of experience requirements in job postings across a wide range of STEM fields with very different learning curves. They also help to explain the perpetual STEM shortage claims. STEM fields are rather like science fiction author William F. Nolan’s dystopian novel Logan’s Run and the Hollywood movie of the same name in which everyone is killed at a certain age (twenty-one in the book and thirty in the movie), resulting in a perpetual need for new blood.

How well founded are these beliefs?

Certainly, in one respect, the beliefs have some foundation in that young single people are usually in good health and peak physical condition. They can, in general, work longer hours potentially including more unpaid overtime than older STEM workers. There is no question the ability to do this declines with age for physical reasons as well as the acquisition of a family.

Laws extending the requirement to pay for overtime to STEM workers would eliminate this. In principle, in an efficient “free” market, competition would force companies to pay for extra overtime without any law. It seems fairly evident that STEM labor markets don’t act like idealized “free” markets. Actually, they may be highly irrational — so much for Milton Friedman.

What about mental horsepower in the sense of IQ, some measure of intelligence or overall mental functioning — the elusive g or general intelligence? Does it decline drastically by 35 or at most 40 as STEM hiring practices seem to suggest. This seems rather unlikely — if not a wholly irrational belief — to me (see the studies below for some contrary data). Nonetheless there is empirical data and anecdotal evidence of a widespread belief to this effect in STEM fields, especially computer software.

What can be done?

In principle, it may be possible to convince (or require by law) employers to adopt more rational, data-driven hiring policies. See, for example:

Like a Good Scotch, Developers Get Better With Age by Klint Finley, Wired, April 30, 2013

Older programmers are more knowledgeable but harder to find: U.S. labor data suggests that a significant portion of programmers leave the job in middle age by Phil Johnson, IT World, May 1, 2013

It’s official: developers get better with age. And scarcer. by Peter Knego


The Leprechauns of Software Engineering: How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it by Laurent Bossavit

Many commonly held beliefs about software specifically and STEM fields in general are basically folklore, not evidence based. Some are actually strongly contradicted by historical evidence and data. It may be possible to collect data with the Internet and other modern tools to debunk many common beliefs as Emerson Murphy-Hill, Peter Knego and Laurent Bossavit try to do in the studies referenced above.

As I have written about previously, the common notion of the 10X programmer or super-programmer which Bossavit spends several chapters calling into question almost certainly contributes to the difficulties that even highly qualified software engineers often encounter seeking employment. Similar beliefs to the 10X programmer probably exist in other STEM fields.

With respect to the football analogy in STEM fields, there are actually many examples of major scientific and technological breakthroughs made by people over forty and even into old age. The Swiss mathematician Johann Jakob Balmer discovered the Balmer formula for the spectral lines of hydrogen at age sixty. Kepler was forty-eight when he discovered his so-called Third Law after nineteen years of studying Tycho Brahe’s data on the motions of Mars and other planets. The mathematician Yitang Zhang recently made a major advance in prime number theory in his fifties after years of obscurity including working as an accountant and at a Subway sandwich shop (not much evidence of the purported severe STEM shortage there).

See (for example):

Great Inventions Come Later in Life (Age and Great Invention, NBER Working Paper 11359) by Benjamin Jones (May 2005)


Age dynamics in scientific creativity by Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg, PNAS November 7, 2011

These studies show the average age for Nobel-prize winning work and major technological inventions in the twentieth century was actually late 30’s to early 40’s with a substantial fraction over fifty.

For entry-level STEM workers the issue is an irrational belief that they cannot do various relatively easy tasks and functions appropriate for entry-level workers. Somehow two or more often three years of experience is always required even for writing a “Hello world” type program.

#include <iostream>

using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char ** argv)
     cout << "Hello world!" << endl;

Does Not Require Three Years Experience: "Hello World" in C++

Perhaps we need a national grass-roots "Fight the Purple Squirrel!" organization somewhat along the lines of Mark Zuckerberg's FWD.us or code.org but using its powers for good instead of evil :-).

Political lobbying has not proven effective so far

While it may be helpful to educate policy makers about these issues, political lobbying on some of these issues has so far proven ineffective. The most famous example is Jennifer Wedel's question to President Obama regarding her husband, an out of work semiconductor engineer in 2012. Despite direct approaches such as this and many detailed studies refuting the STEM shortage claims, policy makers continue to claim and perhaps believe there is a severe STEM shortage, pervasively implied to be a shortage of basic mathematics skills taught in high school and college, and do little to address purple squirrelitis and related maladies.

The persistence of the STEM shortage claims and related policies raise troubling questions about whether the United States is truly a democracy in the basic sense of the word, the independence and reliability of our "free press," and even the rationality of our leaders.

Job hunt spam

At an individual level, I think job seekers need to consider the "purple squirrel" job posts and posters as a kind of spam and try to filter these spam job postings out. Spam is usually defined as unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail or other electronic messages, often of doubtful value.

Especially with the Internet, it costs little and sometimes is free for employers to post job listings that they do not in fact fill, as they loudly claim in certain contexts. Job boards such as LinkedIn and Craig's List appear to derive much of their actual revenues from these posts and thus have little immediate incentive to screen out purple squirrel jobs posts, posts that are simply never filled for other reasons, or even scams masquerading as job postings.

Unfortunately, some job posters are incorrectly listing as requirements skills and experience that should properly be described as "preferred" or "desired" rather than "required." They actually would be willing to hire the job seeker even if he or she lacks the "required" skills. After discovering they cannot find the legendary purple squirrel, they will settle for the actual gray squirrel.

In English, "required" means "must have" and not "nice to have". "Preferred" means "nice to have" and not "must have." "Desired" is actually ambiguous. It could mean "must have" or it could mean "nice to have." I desire Angelina Jolie and refuse to date anyone else (good luck there). I desire Angelina Jolie but date my pretty next door neighbor. Many STEM job posts have a "required" or "requirements" sections followed by a section that is labeled "Preferred", "Desired", or something similar and probably refers to "nice to have" skills and experience.

Angelina Jolie: Required or Merely Desired?

Angelina Jolie: Required or Merely Desired?

Hence, it is probably prudent to send a resume or contact potential employers who may be engaged in a purple squirrel hunt based solely on the long, nit-picky list of requirements in their job posting but may be more flexible in practice. But find a way to identify and screen out the genuine purple squirrel hunters as quickly as possible while continuing to talk with more flexible potential employers. It can be time consuming, frustrating, and sometimes demeaning to waste your time with a long interview with a purple squirrel hunter. By their own loudly trumpeted admissions, the purple squirrel hunters often never fill these jobs.

There is clearly a tradeoff here. Probably no real world method could screen out all purple squirrel job posts without screening out most or all appropriate job posts. Especially if you are working full time, handling purple squirrel job posts can eat up a lot of time. Worst case you might spend a day or even two days in rare cases interviewing with a potential employer who has no real interest in hiring you, expending your limited paid time off (PTO) on a purple squirrel hunt. You can probably spend more time on purple squirrel hunts as part of the price of finding a real job when out of work, but the purple squirrel hunts and other inappropriate job postings can consume valuable time and resources even so.

Frankly, I do not know a proven, evidence-based way to screen out the purple squirrel hunters and other inappropriate job posters. Another related problem are job posters with grossly unrealistic ideas about the size, scope, risk level, and difficulty of STEM projects. I am sure many of these also do not end up hiring people as they either realize the project is much larger than they thought or rationalize their unrealistic thinking by claiming there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers -- rather like complaining there is a shortage of workers who can walk on water.

I personally have tried a few ideas to screen out the spam job postings or inquiries with mixed results. For example, this is my "get acquainted" video for prospective clients which addresses some of these issues:

I have had mixed results with this video although I like to think it is quite clear on some issues.

Deeds not words

If possible, STEM students and workers should probably create an on-line portfolio of professional-level work that demonstrates they can do the job they are seeking -- far better than college course-work, grades, and standardized test scores. This is not practical for all job seekers. A job seeker needs free time to create a portfolio unless they can get permission to use work from a current or previous employer in their portfolio. If someone is working their way through college or university, they may not have time to create a portfolio.

Although creating a portfolio is becoming more and more common, and I personally think it is the thing to do if possible, it has not been validated by data and evidence for the most part, outside possibly of a few specialized areas such as video-game software development where it has been a common practice for years. Video-game software development in particular is noted for long hours and highly unstable working conditions and generally short careers.


Unfortunately, there is no certain cure for the Catch-22 STEM job market. Many of the beliefs and policies, both public and private, that cause the Catch-22 STEM job market are deeply rooted. While I personally believe the policies are short-sighted, harmful, and contribute to the slowdown in scientific and technological progress over the last forty years, this is difficult to prove. Frankly, "tech" billionaires who are rewarded handsomely for flashy gadgets with minimal practical benefits and glorified dating web sites (and job boards 🙂 ) simply may not care.

Collecting and disseminating independently verifiable data contradicting common folklore about STEM jobs, careers, and fields such as the "football analogy" in software engineering may help.

At an individual level, STEM job seekers should try to screen out the purple squirrel hunts and other forms of job hunt spam. Entry-level and other STEM workers may be able to address the irrational prejudice against them by building up portfolios of professional-level work, perhaps in collaboration with others to address the "are you a team player?" concerns that employers may have.

© 2013 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].


The football image is a picture of the 2004 Vanderbilt-Navy football game from Wikimedia Commons. It is in the public domain.


The image of actress Angelina Jolie at the San Diego ComicCon 2003 is from Wikimedia Commons and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.


References and Suggested Reading

IT Talent Shortage or Purple Squirrel Hunt? by Thomas Claburn, Information Week, March 7, 2013

Why Companies Aren't Getting the Employees They Need by Peter Cappelli, Wall Street Journal (Online), October 24, 2011


  1. Brendan May 27, 2013
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