The Grand Challenges for the 21st century will require all levels of STEM professionals: from assembly line workers trained to use highly technical machines, to PhD astrophysicists. In fact, many of the jobs of tomorrow do not even exist today as they are dependent on future problems that will arise and the required technologies needed to solve those problems. However, the demand for STEM jobs, skills, and knowledge is imminent today, so let’s examine some of the patterns of growth, concerns for the workforce, and challenge perceptions of the breadth of opportunities in STEM.
The science and engineering (S&E) workforce has shown sustained growth for more than half a century. The number of workers in S&E occupations grew from about 182,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million in 2009. This represents an average annual growth rate of 5.9%, almost five times the 1.2% growth rate for the total workforce older than age 18 during this period. Even in times of economic collapse, STEM continues to see growth. For example, while workforce growth in S&E occupations from 2000 to 2009 was slower than in the preceding two decades, at 1.4% growth annually, it still far exceeded the 0.2% growth rate for the general workforce. Given how embedded technology has become in our society, and the Grand Challenges we face, we can expect persistent growth among STEM jobs in the coming decades.
An additional concern for the STEM workforce is many S&E workers are reaching traditional retirement age (26% were older than age 50 in 2006), while jobs requiring specialized training are growing at five times the rate of other occupations[2, 3]. Therefore, in addition to openings from job growth, many openings will be created by the need to replace the many highly skilled workers who will retire over the next two decades.
When we think of STEM, we tend to think of highly professional white-collar jobs that require copious amounts of education. In reality, STEM jobs encompass so much more than the stereotypes much of the world retains about these fields, where varying degrees of STEM knowledge offer many opportunities for jobs. In fact, seven out of ten of the fastest growing occupations, requiring at least an associate degree, are in STEM fields . When we look at all STEM jobs, half are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average—a wage 10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements . A portion of STEM jobs today are actually blue-collar positions, and these roles are also in demand. What is important for us to note, is that if we continue to only encourage students who are high-achieving in math and science, we will most certainly be sacrificing potential talent to fill the entire gamut of STEM jobs that are on the horizon.
Looking a little more broadly, as of 2011, 26 million U.S. jobs—20 percent of all jobs—require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field . What this means is, many workers outside S&E occupations have STEM training or use related knowledge and skills in their jobs. Thus not all workers need formal college-level skills, but they do need to master a specific body of knowledge, and STEM knowledge and skills are in demand.
The opportunities in STEM are extensive and the pathways to STEM careers are more numerous than we once considered. In order to solve the Grand Challenges and to meet the workforce demands of our time, we must transform our perspective of the STEM workforce, introduce STEM careers to every student, and inspire the next generation of problem solvers to acquire and value STEM skills and knowledge that will change the world.
1. National Science Board, Science and engineering indicators 2012, 2012, National Science Foundation: Arlington, VA.
2. National Science Board, Science and engineering indicators 2010 (NSB 10-01), 2010, National Science Foundation: Arlington, VA.
3. American Association of University Women, Improve Girls’ and Women’s Opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, 2010, American Association of University Women.
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, in http://bls.gov/ooh/2012.
5. Rothwell, J., The Hidden STEM Economy, 2013, Brookings.
This essay is part of a larger work and was funded by the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity.