The recent series of public protests dubbed Occupy Wall Street seems to resonate with a lot of people. Protesters complain about social and economic inequality and a lack of jobs. Many protesters seem to be in the same fix as one interviewee I heard who stated she had a history degree and student loans to pay off, but no prospects.

What’s interesting about the Wall Street movement is that it erupted about the same time as an annual talent shortage survey by the ManpowerGroup, which found that 52% of U. S. employers are having trouble filling positions. But unfortunately for the Occupy Wallstreeter interviewed, a background in history was not on the list of sought-after skills. Topping the list of jobs difficult to fill were technicians, sales reps, and skilled trades workers, followed by engineers and laborers.

The ManpowerGroup results seem to reinforce findings of a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Researchers there looked at the prospects for occupations in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). STEM workers, they say, can expect rising wages. Surprisingly, this is partly because 38% of students who start college with a STEM major don’t graduate with a STEM degree, and 43% of those graduates do not work in STEM jobs immediately after graduation.

The prospects for someone with a four-year STEM degree who actually works in his/her field are pretty good. But perhaps the best news to come out of the study applies to those who lack the funds for a four-year college: By 2018, about 35% of the STEM workforce will be made up of people with community college degrees at most. Georgetown researchers say by then, we’ll need about 1 million individuals with STEM Associate’s degrees, another 745,000 with some kind of formal certificate as required for skilled trade work, and another 760,000 with industry-based certifications.

Indeed, those who want to skip getting a four-year degree and still want a high standard of living would be well advised to look at some kind of STEM-related work. Georgetown researchers say over 75% of STEM workers with less than high-school educations make more than the average high-school dropout. And over 75% of STEM workers with high-school diplomas make more than the average for similar workers in other fields.

The statistics for those with some college training but no degree are comparable: 71% of STEM workers in this category do better than their non-STEM counterparts. And about 66% of STEM Associate degree holders do better than the average non-STEMer.

STEM careers are also becoming less of an all-male bastion. Researchers report that women have become the majority in STEM majors that include biology and statistics and decision science. They also make up a large portion of all mathematics majors, though they are still relatively rare in engineering and physical science fields.

So at the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I have some advice for the jobless liberal arts majors manning the Occupy Wall Street picket lines: Consider finding a community college that can teach you how to weld or operate a CNC machine.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.