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STEM and the American Workforce

You’ve heard it before: STEM jobs — that is, jobs in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields — are the future. The future of the U.S. economy. The future path to a child’s success. The future of U.S. competitiveness on the world stage.

But what is a STEM job? Is it a doctor? A Silicon Valley programmer? A NASA scientist? What sort of education path is needed for a STEM career? A bachelor’s degree? A Ph.D.? A vocational-technical training certificate?

Researchers in government, academia, nonprofit organizations and the private sector have all attempted to answer this question. Many of these previous attempts painted interesting pictures, but questions remain. This analysis takes an inclusive view of STEM. It considers all jobs that rely heavily on science, technology, engineering and math, regardless of the level of educational attainment required of the employee. To fully understand the impact of STEM on the economy and U.S. workforce, all STEM workers must be included — for example, this analysis recognizes that both the laboratory technician and the physician are critical to a patient’s diagnosis.

This analysis finds that the vast majority of American economic activity is attributable to STEM. The American STEM workforce is not only composed of Silicon Valley coders and Ph.D. scientists, but also includes STEM professionals working in occupations that do not require a bachelor’s degree. These licensed practical nurses, electricians, advanced manufacturing specialists, laboratory technicians, military communications systems managers and more make up the backbone of the STEM workforce. Across the board, regardless of educational attainment, U.S. STEM workers earn higher wages than their non-STEM peers and have a broad impact on the economy (Noonan, 2017).

In total, STEM supports two-thirds of U.S. jobs (67 percent), 69 percent of U.S. GDP and $2.3 trillion in annual federal tax revenue.

This analysis finds that one-third of U.S. workers are direct STEM professionals, accounting for 39 percent of U.S. GDP. And since this analysis takes an inclusive view of STEM — one that does not discriminate based on an individual worker’s educational attainment — it also finds that 59 percent of America’s STEM workforce does not hold a bachelor’s degree. This cohort has a variety of post-secondary education and training, from associate’s degrees to technical certificates (Carnevale, Smith, & Melton, 2010). Further, the finding that the majority of U.S. STEM jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree illustrates the large range and diversity of STEM professions and why workers from all educational backgrounds have a stake in STEM.

The promise of a 21st century economy powered by STEM is here. And it’s being powered by previously unacknowledged STEM professionals. The key question is how the United States will sustain its existing STEM workforce while continuing to strengthen it for future success.

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