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New Study: Teens Losing Interest in STEM Careers

Teen with science project
The interest level shown by 14- to 18-year-olds in STEM careers has declined, with many concerned about the time and training required before they can be successful. © Tim Pannell/Corbis/AP Images

A 2013 survey of teenagers aged 14-18 has found a large decline in interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-based careers compared to last year’s findings.

October 15, 2013—Junior Achievement, an organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that according to its website is dedicated to “educating students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy,” has commissioned a survey for 12 of the last 13 years that assesses teenagers’ thoughts on careers. Even with that lengthy history, what they discovered this year surprised them: Teens reported an 8 percent decline in interest in careers based in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). When medical careers are included, the decrease in interest plummets by 15 percent from 2012 to 2013. The findings were released in the organization’s Teens & Careers Survey 2013, underwritten by New York City-based ING U.S.

“The decrease in the interest in STEM was definitely a shock,” says Stephanie Bell, a spokesperson for Junior Achievement. “It was frankly disappointing, because it’s such a high-growth area in terms of new jobs being created all the time.”

The organization also explored the reasons why this sudden shift occurred. “Our belief is that teens may have a perception that any career within the STEM arena, or within medicine or dentistry, requires an extensive post-secondary education,” Bell says. But while current teenagers may be wary of STEM- or medical-based careers, that does not necessarily mean that they have already settled on another career path. In 2009 and 2010, only 1 percent and 3 percent of teenagers, respectively, were unsure of their ideal career, but in 2013, the “I don’t know” category jumped to 15 percent of responders. (“I don’t know” was not an option in the 2012 survey, and the survey was not conducted in 2011.)

“We feel that there is maybe a lack of awareness coupled with some misperceptions, or misconceptions, around what it requires to have a job in [STEM or medical] fields,” Bell says. It’s not that teens do not know the careers exist, she is careful to point out. The problem, as Junior Achievement identifies it, is that increasing numbers of teens appear to be concerned about the amount of training, and time, it will take to reach economic self-sufficiency in those jobs. 

According to another survey conducted concurrently by Junior Achievement, the Teens and Personal Finance Survey 2013, the age at which teens believe they will become economically self-sufficient is skewing older. That survey revealed that since 2011 the number of teens who believe that they will not reach economic independence until the second half of their twenties has more than doubled, increasing from 12 percent of responders in 2011 to 25 percent in 2013.

This increasing teenage concern about the age at which they will be able to live independently is supported by a recent study released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Generation. The Georgetown University center’s analysis of employment and work trends found that, on average, Millennials are not reaching economic self-sufficiency until they reach 30. (See “Young Workers Shift Approach to Career Prep,” on Civil Engineering online.)

While the Georgetown University study discovered a structural shift in educational opportunities, such lower-paying training programs as internships required to fill the gap between the completion of post-secondary education and the beginning of full-time, career-s, Junior Achievement has discovered that current teens are increasingly concerned about the burden of student loans that are necessary for the levels of education that are required for the careers they are considering.

The Georgetown University center report focused on trends that have already taken place, focusing specifically on the years 1980-2012, while the Junior Achievement survey examines current teens’ perceptions of what the future holds for them. As a result, while Georgetown calls for a shift in how training programs are structured as an attempt reverse the trend of later self-sufficiency, Junior Achievement focuses instead on changing how teenagers think.

“It’s really important for young people to be proactive in researching jobs that align with their skills and interests to make sure that they are making informed decisions about their futures,” Bell says. “That’s something that Junior Achievement is really focused on, helping young people become work-ready—not only the practical skills, but also the knowledge to make sound decisions.”

The Junior Achievement survey included 1,025 teenagers, aged 14-18 and located across the United States. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 3.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.



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