STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

In education today there is a focus to deliver qualified graduates to take on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Not only is this where the opportunities are today and likely in the future, but there is a tremendous shortage of qualified Americans to fill the number of STEM jobs currently available.

But a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM field alone may not be enough. That’s because the ability to thrive in the workplace is more often dependent on interpersonal skills that have nothing to do with STEM. These soft skills may include things like cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy.

“Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be what I would call stempathy jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in a World of Accelerations. “These are jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal) psychology, to hold a conversation with Watson to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.”

These social skills may have been taught or modeled at home, yet are sorely missing in many workers with STEM careers. Whether people have forgotten these skills or simply choose to no longer demonstrate them in the workplace, it is a problem.

As a consultant and coach working with a variety of people in STEM organizations, I can attest that it is not technical competency or business aptitude that is often missing in many workers. In fact, it is the interpersonal skills that are often frustrating directs, coworkers and supervisors, and hampering the careers of these professionals.

According to a 2013 research study by Oxford’s Martin School, 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.

“Nobody cares what you know, because the Google machine knows everything,” Friedman said. The future, he argues, is about what we can do with what we know. It is our humanity and our empathy that make us uniquely different from computers.

This humanity is something we should embrace and use to our advantage rather than downplay as insignificant. It is also the very best way to protect your livelihood from being shortcut by a computer taking over your job.

Showing up in the workplace not only with our technical expertise, but also with compassion for one another is important in order to thrive individually and collectively. This means actively demonstrating cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy. Only in this way can STEM professionals truly reach their full potential.

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