The number of U.S. undergraduate degrees being awarded in most STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) has risen steadily in recent years{link to G Sci page}. Yet some American employers say they are having trouble finding candidates to fill STEM jobs. The mismatch is not occurring because of an actual shortage of graduates; the numbers of job openings and new degree holders align fairly closely. And the shortfall is not because more foreign-born students are returning home after earning U.S. degrees, as has been rumored lately.

The mismatch is occurring because people with STEM degrees are choosing jobs in other fields that pay more or have higher perceived status, according to Nicole Smith, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Biology students become doctors; math majors go into finance," she explains. Others get MBAs so they will be recruited for management positions, where they can make more money, in part to pay off high student loans.

Smith says several steps could make STEM jobs more attractive to students. Raising salaries in certain disciplines would clearly help. Starting wages in computer science and engineering have increased steadily over time, for example, but wages in biology have not. Notably, the number of women entering college is rising faster than the number of men, and female students tend to take biology over computer science or engineering, so raising biology salaries could be particularly helpful.

Making science jobs appear more exciting would also improve their attractiveness. So would finding ways to get society to hold STEM professions in higher regard. Surveys of graduating STEM students show that they value social “recognition” and that they think society holds professionals such as doctors and corporate executives in higher esteem than scientists.

Companies could help the cause as well. Smith says that sometimes employers complain that they cannot find the right graduates to fit specific jobs, yet she thinks that expectation is unrealistic. In decades past, corporations would hire graduates for placement into apprentice-style programs where the new employees would receive custom training. But companies have cut back on such programs in recent years. Resurrecting training programs could help shape graduates into the kinds of employees companies are seeking, which ultimately would increase the number of STEM grads who end up in STEM jobs.

Find more data and commentary about undergraduate science degrees in the February 2012 issue of Scientific American.