20130614-175215.jpgNSA leaker Edward Snowden’s formal education stopped with a GED, a fact that the New York Times’ David Brooks and others have spun into a caricature of him as a loner or outsider.

In fact, Snowden’s lack of formal credentials made him mainstream, and maybe even the wave of the future. The Brookings Institution reported in a paper titled “The Hidden STEM Economy” that half of the nation’s workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math don’t have or need a bachelor’s degree. They do their work with an associate’s degree or even just on-the-job training.

When you add in these less formally trained STEM specialists, you arrive at 26 million STEM workers, making up one-fifth of the U.S. workforce. The most common non-college STEM jobs include trades like auto mechanics, electricians, welders, and logistics supervisors, whose jobs all increasingly require a sophisticated mastery of both software and machinery. On average these workers earn 10% more than workers at a similar level of education who don’t have a mastery of any scientific or technical field.

One of the biggest and fastest-growing non-college STEM jobs, which comes pretty darn close to describing Snowden’s former position, is computer systems analyst, a position that earns an average of more than $82,000 a year and is growing 22% over this decade. The Department of Labor notes that a bachelor’s degree is “not always a requirement” for this job, as long as you “know how to write computer programs.”

The proliferation of non-college STEM jobs is a telltale sign of two things: an education and policy system that’s not keeping up with the demands of innovation; and innovative industries that are finding new sources of talent.

The first part is a problem. The Brookings researchers point out that public investment in career and technical education doesn’t coordinate with the opportunities that are actually out there. “Of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education and training, only one-fifth goes towards supporting sub-bachelor’s level training, while twice as much supports bachelor’s or higher level-STEM careers.”

By funding four-year college and graduate school programs, the government systematically privileges students from higher-income backgrounds over the community college kids.

The U.S., compared to countries like Germany, has a longstanding aversion to “tracking” high school students into career and technical education, out of a fear that it will lead to denying opportunities to low income youths or minority groups. Yet there’s evidence for the opposite: Career and technical programs starting in high school help underserved students graduate and go on to college.

The second part is a solution. There are literally dozens of ways outside the formal education system to learn how to program and get started with a STEM career, from forums like Stack Overflow, to sites like Khan Academy, Codecademy, or Lynda.com, to massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and Udacity, to bootcamps like Hacker School or Dev Bootcamp.. Most of the online options are free or very cheap. The shortage of software engineers is so acute that the technology industry is leading the way in creating and recognizing alternative educational paths that don’t include a traditional sheepskin. Snowden’s leak brought visibility to this situation as well.


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