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Full Of Sound And Fury

If I were selecting my college classes today, I’d have something a little more practical in mind, especially after the Great Recession.

As someone who spent the better part of college studying modern literary theory -- a vocation so rich with complexity yet sparse in practical application -- I can sympathize with the other liberal arts devotees out there: the ones with the music performance or art history degrees. Perhaps when I have a child in college and I am footing the bill, my understanding will lessen… but I hope not. For the sake of erudition (and the ability to use words like erudition in a sentence), I don’t regret the essays on Death in Venice, or the day I read The Sound & The Fury in UW-Madison’s Memorial Library stacks.

Still, perhaps if I were selecting my college classes today, I’d have something a little more practical in mind, especially after the Great Recession taught us that good jobs don’t hide waiting for us in a Trojan horse somewhere… not like they used to anyway. recently released its list of the current 10 most lucrative college majors, along with the 10 least. As manufacturing engineers, would it surprise you to know that 8 of the 10 titles end with “engineering”? Here are the top ten, relative to earnings level:

  • Mining and Mineral Engineering
  • Metallurgical Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Mathematics and Computer Sciences
  • Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration
  • Petroleum Engineering

This list came as an interesting follow-up to an article I read on CNN last week that highlighted a growing problem where undergraduates across the country are choosing to leave science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs before they graduate with those degrees. Many students in those STEM fields struggle to complete their degrees in four years, or drop out, according to a 2010 University of California, Los Angeles, study. In fact, nearly 22 percent dropped out after five years.

According to the CNN article, James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, said a big problem is that educators don’t often realize the urgency of fostering the next generation of American scientists and engineers: “Universities and faculty have to understand this is a national priority,” Brown said.

One of the reasons these programs have such a high failure rate is relatively straightforward: the course work is hard. But as a matter of national priority, we should be careful about how much failure we perpetuate. While nobody wants an un- or under-qualified electrical engineer, there’s something to be said about a little support to help these kids flourish.

As it becomes more evident that highly-trained workers are the sticking point for America’s ability to thrive in some of these competitive global fields, it’s up to us to do whatever we can to encourage some of them to hop off the corporate ladder and take a stab at careers in automation and design. Think of all of the would-be STEM leaders of today who migrated to business school when high finance was the place to be. Now, it seems the tables have turned. And at this point, it is we who should be full of sound and fury over the fact that these jobs are funneling overseas partly due to a public education system that undervalues these types of skills.

I’m certainly not telling you to yank your daughters and sons out of their dance programs and debate clubs. But as business leaders, perhaps you could consider ways in which you can lead the charge. Open up your business for tours and career days, mentor teenagers (show them the list!), or donate some money to keep your local high school shop program in place.

There’s nothing wrong with spending your college years honing your skills in the area of your choosing, but parsing a novella by Robbe-Grillet is not going to get you on that top ten list, most likely. STEM rules the day, and we’d better get behind it before our competitive opportunity gets re-shelved and forgotten like so many stacks of vintage books, waiting to be read.