Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Loose coupling" and seminary education

Our Sloan Foundation grant is titled "Loose Coupling in the Science and Engineering Workforce", and while we're working on a lot of stuff under the auspices of the grant, the major project is to look at science and engineering (S&E) course-taking pathways in school and how they relate to occupational choice and ultimate labor market performance. You often hear about a "leaky pipeline" when it comes to S&E where you have an initial set of promising students that we lose to attrition over the course of high school, college, grad school, and the workforce. It's a great metaphor for calling people to action (everyone wants to fix a leaky pipeline!). Our project is in a lot of ways a less alarmist look at this apparent "loose coupling" between the different stages in the development of the S&E workforce to understand the choices that are made and the potential benefits provided by this loose coupling.

What's interesting is that this is not just a phenomenon going on in the S&E workforce, although that's primarily where you hear about it.

The Washington Post reports today that 42 percent of seminary graduates are working directly in ministry. A seminary degree is in a lot of ways a professional degree like a law degree or a medical degree (probably less so than those examples but more than a lot of other degrees), so these numbers are quite notable - and they were not the norm several decades ago.

Clearly this is a phenomenon that goes beyond S&E education and work.

The most obvious answer for why we see this loose coupling is that the skills you obtain in a degree program are beneficial in a lot of different fields. Indeed being the guy with a seminary degree in some settings can give you unique insights that other people at your place of work wouldn't have. This is usually the explanation that you hear most, and I think that's for good reason - it's probably an important factor in most cases. In the case of seminary students there are other pressures, primarily that it's getting harder to make a living at a church as people become less attached (and therefore less financially attached) to their churches.

Another explanation I'm going to be exploring in my dissertation is the real option value of degree for getting a job in a particular field. If you get a degree in an S&E field you are not guaranteed to get a high paying job in that field, but the likelihood of getting one goes up. Instead of applying to that S&E job with probability A of getting the job, you can exercise the option of applying with probability B - an option that is only available to people with an S&E degree (all others apply with a lower probability A). Ex ante, the availability of that S&E job and its pay relative to the available outside opportunities is uncertain, but an S&E degree offers the opportunity to exercise certain options if the circumstances are right.

Another explanation not particularly appealing to economists (not because it's unrealistic but because it's not an "economic" explanation) is that students just get things wrong. They think they want to do something and then it turns out they don't. None of our economic explanations should be construed to exclude this possibility, but you're also not going to get many economists interested in this.

Are there any other good reasons for "loose coupling" between major choice and occupational choice?


  1. My personal experience was that I started university with strong math/physics skills and I did well. By fourth year I was second in my class with a scholarship for grad school. I concluded that being second was not going to put me on a university tenure track so I switched over to law. The guy who was first in my class got a PhD in particle physics from a leading school but wound up becoming a computer programmer. Students try to be economically rational. If society wants more STEM graduates all it has to do is offer better employment prospects and then educate students about those prospects.

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  5. A lot of majors have little use other than as a basis for graduate school and since not all go to graduate school, their likelihood of using it is small. Simply looking at the number of jobs requiring such education versus the number graduated with it shows how oversupplied we are with them. In part this is because education lags the economy and for many new jobs no relevant education exists so some general education with learning on the job is considered acceptable. Meanwhile the jobs and their needs will change and become obsolete faster than education can support them so education focuses on generalities that may be applicable in the future.

  6. I get cynical in my old age. Let's agree that to some extent, the "need" for STEM workers is related to economic factors, at least in some areas, as when the increase in Internet usage creates opportunities for web page designers and Java programmers. On the other hand, particularly in the US, STEM employment in some areas is clearly driven by social/governmental concerns completely unconnected to the economy or any recognizable market -- nuclear engineering for example, ship building, manned space programs, defense spending.

    On yet another hand, it's hard to avoid the impression that our "need" for STEM workers is being determined by business men and politicians who aren't interested so much in the artifacts that a STEM workforce might create as they are in maintaining a preferred social organization. I.e., General Electric doesn't need engineers to invent new toasters as much as it needs engineers in low level management and white collar positions to separate C-Suite executives from workers on the factory floor and to "justify" differential levels of income and status. Which is to say, we pay our CEO 400 times what we pay janitors because there are these guys with white shirts and college degrees from famous universities who get paid 10 times what we pay janitors.

    It would be interesting to see if your tools and methods of explanation work as well for describing the recruitment and employment history of other specialized labor segments, not generally categorized as STEM fields. Examples might include mill wrights, finishing carpenters, book editors, commercial illustrators, professional divers, etc.

    It would also be interesting to see how STEM employment varies in and out of the Anglosphere. Some societies are noteworthy for the high percentage of college graduates with STEM degrees (e.g., the late USSR, Saudi Arabia, China); is this as beneficial as say a Republican congressman with a law degree might claim? What are the numbers and opportunities for theoretical physicists in Germany, or mechanical engineers in Denmark. etc.? (My thought is these might be much simpler environments for the study of STEM recruitment and career progress.)


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