Edward Snowden Doesn't Have a BA—Why That's the Future of the Tech Industry

Half of the nation's science, technology, engineering and math workforce doesn't have a college degree.

This post branches off our NSA surveillance tracker, for ongoing coverage of the NSA leaks.

NSA 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.

[Graduation: zhangyang13576997233 via Shutterstock]

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  • Tom

    Perhaps if he had a college degree he would have understood the long history of Russia and its connection to Communism, the KGB, Communism and the atrocities associated with Stalin and his associates.  Perhaps he would have understood how going to the ex-Soviets and the KGB thug Putin would eliminate being lauded as a patriot/hero in the US.  If he would have stayed in the US I would have labeled him a hero and a patri now ot.  He is a traitor.  I say this as a liberal critic of America's imperialistic, racist, homophobic, classist, and gendered past.

    The point is - truly you can do STEM plumbers work with a certain level of education, and that is fine.  We need these workers and they can make a fine salary.  However, he seems to have known very little about the history of Russia or he did not care,  And since the discussion is about non-four year college degree STEMers,I guess we best be careful and filter these STEMers more thoroughly before trusting our lives to them. 

    Please no comments about 4 year degree criminals or traitors since we have had plenty of them in the past. 

    But why did this guy pick Russia?  If he does something like this in Russia he will probably be in worse shape than it is now.

  • ErickDean

    Snowden like Paul Robeson, Charles Chaplin, Larry Parks, Gail Sondergard, and all the other show business folks and non-show business folks is tweeking the thin skinned american imperialistic government and its brainwashed boot-licks upon which it depends for election and re-election time and time again!  Adolph Hitler was right when he said "so wonderful it is for governments that people don't think!"  The american aristocratic 'founding fathers' did not leave the word democracy out of the american constitution (the convention was boycotted by the way just in case they didn't tell you in high-school or college!) without good cause.  In fact many of those men were horrified by the idea of handing such a form of self government over to uneducated common folk (75% of whom were illiterate and a number of whom were over crowded prison system occupants pardoned by King George with the pledge to help settle his colonies in North America and Australia) let alone African slaves!   

    Erick Tippett
    Retired Musician/Teacher
    Chicago, Illinois


    Why is it a problem that these kids don't have to go to college to get good jobs in STEM industries? It seems we have so hardwired in our brains this idea that "EVERYONE NEEDS TO GO TO COLLEGE". While the facts you present utterly disprove this notion, you seem to see a problem -that people aren't going to school for these things-. Clearly, sinking any more resources in "educating" STEM trades is a waste of money, if half the workforce in those industries is self taught. Lew, get this CoIntel propagandist off your front page.

  • Pete Wagner

    The fact he had no formal education makes his hiring into the position various dubious, ...which is of course what the entire circus now surrounding him is.  Who was Snowden hired over for the $120K TS position and why, and what propelled him into global headlines for spouting off what we all should have known:  That NSA does what Google and others do, cache the internet for a rainy day?  Forget the associated fluff, get to the seedy bottom of this!

  • Jgnad

    I really resent the coment made by a government official reguarding Snowdens "lack of education". Obviously her is smart enough to get the job he had. The only reason he was fired was because of political Heat coming down on him and the backlash the company will see in the coming weeks. The company must protect itself and Mr Snawden simply made public something that he knew to be wrong. The real sad part this story is missing, after coming public this man is now without a country toncall home.

  • sternhead

    >The only reason he was fired was because of political Heat coming down on him and the backlash the company will see in the coming weeks.
    Stupidest post ever.