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The Hidden STEM Economy in the U.S.

The Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, an educational non-profit think tank, has just released a report that states jobs requiring knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) form a much larger part of our economy than previously thought and that federal support of community colleges and technical schools should be increased accordingly. Charles Fishburne talks with Jonathan Rothwell, a Senior Research Associate at the Brookings Institute in this WCVE Public Radio Science Matters Report.

STEM jobs (those requiring knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math) are a much larger part of the economy-- both nationally and regionally -- than currently thought. Half of these jobs are filled by workers with an associate’s degree or less education, according to a report released today by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, which also analyzes the regional economic impact of STEM workers. As of 2011, 20 percent of all jobs (or 26 million in total) require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field. This compares to previous estimates of 4 to 5 percent from the National Science Foundation and others.

The Hidden STEM Economy” presents a new portrait of STEM workers nationally and across regions and metropolitan areas. Previous studies classified workers as STEM only if they worked in a small number of professional occupations, but the Brookings definition classifies occupations according to the level of knowledge in STEM fields that workers need to perform their jobs. As a result, many non-professional jobs in manufacturing, healthcare, construction, and mining industries could be considered STEM jobs. Only half of all STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and experience and on-the-job training help fill the demand for STEM skills.

University attendance is not the only path to a STEM career,” stated Jonathan Rothwell, Associate Fellow and author of the report. “While highly educated STEM professionals are a vital part of the economy, many STEM workers with less than a bachelor’s degree contribute to economic growth and innovation in a variety of ways.” The report notes, for example, that installation, maintenance, and repair workers comprise 10 percent of all STEM jobs.

STEM skills are highly rewarded, the report finds. STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education earn an average salary of $88,000, compared to $66,000 for non-STEM workers with at least a bachelor’s. Sub-bachelor’s level STEM jobs also provide relatively high wages, paying $53,000 on average compared to $33,000 for sub-bachelor degree workers outside of STEM fields.

STEM workers at all educational levels play a significant role in the invention, deployment, and maintenance of technologies that drive economic growth, the report argues, and this can be seen at the metropolitan scale. “Job growth, employment rates, patenting, incomes, and exports are all higher in metropolitan economies with high levels of STEM skills,” said Rothwell.

The relationship between a STEM workforce and stronger economic performance depends both on the highly educated STEM workers and those with an associate’s degree or less education. Subbachelor’s STEM workers advise researchers on design options, cost estimates and other practical aspects of technological development. They produce, install, and repair the products patented by professional researchers, allowing firms to reach their markets, reduce product defects, create process innovations, and enhance productivity.

The current narrow definition of STEM has serious funding implications. Of the $4.3 billion spent by the federal government on STEM education, only one-fifth goes to support education or training below the bachelor’s degree level. Such limited funding makes it harder for young workers to receive training in STEM careers like technicians and craft trades and for older adults to sharpen their skills through continuing education.

Based on the broader definition of what constitutes a STEM job, the report includes data on the Richmond Metropolitan Area as well as Northern Virginia and D.C. Some of the data included for the Richmond Metro Area Profile is a listing of the top 10 STEM occupations:

  • Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners
  • Computer Occupations
  • Financial Specialists
  • Construction Trades Workers
  • Business Operations Specialists
  • Engineers
  • Installation, Maintenance and Repair Occupations
  • Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Mechanics and Installers
  • Operations Specialties Managers
  • Health Technologists and Technicians

Per Rothwell, the report sheds light on the need to encourage “policymakers to recognize the contributions of all workers with a high level of STEM knowledge. With modest training, many laid off workers or those in low-paying jobs could embark on a more lucrative career path in a STEM field, while helping boost economic growth and competitiveness nationally and within regions.” 

Click here for the Full "The Hidden STEM Economy" Report

Photo: courtesy of Virginia Manufacturers Association and Dream it. Do it. Virginia.

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