Report Sees Promise of 'Hidden' STEM Careers

By Steve Bates Jun 28, 2013
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Many jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are open to Americans who lack a four-year college degree, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The report, The Hidden STEM Economy, by Jonathan Rothwell, Ph.D., says the traditional definition of STEM careers is too narrow and should encompass many more jobs, including some blue-collar ones. These include HVAC installers, actuaries, auto service technicians, carpenters and electricians, among others.

About 5 percent of Americans hold jobs traditionally defined as STEM; another 15 percent are in positions that should be considered STEM because they require expertise in at least one STEM topic, according to the Brookings report. It relied on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network data-collection program.

A separate study that focused on competencies, conducted in 2011 by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C., found that STEM jobs make up an even greater share of the U.S. economy: about 40 percent.

“They’re working in health care; they’re working in finance; they’re working across the economy,” said Nicole Smith, Ph.D., a research professor and senior economist at the Georgetown center.

Americans who hold these nontraditional STEM jobs generally are not inventors of products and processes, Rothwell explained. But their contributions are significant, and their training is rigorous, he added. “There are a variety of ways to acquire knowledge,” he said. Certificate programs, on-the-job training and other education short of four-year degrees and graduate studies “can be just as valuable—if not more valuable.”

Among the Brookings report findings:

  • Half of U.S. STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree. These positions pay, on average, $53,000 a year—10 percent higher than non-STEM jobs with similar educational requirements.
  • While jobs traditionally categorized as STEM are clustered in relatively few metropolitan areas, STEM occupations that don’t require a four-year degree are common in every large metropolitan area.
  • Only one-fifth of the $4.3 billion the federal government spends each year on STEM education and training goes toward students who are not seeking four-year degrees.

STEM jobs are expected to increase significantly in the next five years, with most of the new positions being in computer fields.

Balaji Ganapathy, head of workforce effectiveness at Tata Consultancy Services in North America, also sees a need for “a wider perspective of the STEM economy.” He would like there to be greater awareness among young people, educators, government officials, business leaders and other institutions that STEM education is a priority.

The issue “has come to an inflection point,” said Ganapathy. To make STEM training successful, he suggested, the nation must increase its capacity to teach STEM, expose students to more STEM skills, increase standards for STEM education and improve the employability of STEM graduates.

Two national forums on STEM, a White House initiative and other efforts have attempted to align educators and employers, but no single intervention has emerged as a quick fix.

Getting adolescents to do their math homework is one place to start. “Young people need to know what it means to do that homework,” Ganapathy stressed. “That has not been reinforced for them.” In addition, “It has to be cool—and people need to perceive it as cool.”

Getting young women interested in STEM careers is particularly difficult. There is a growing gender gap between boys and girls in STEM education. Currently, women hold less than one-fourth of STEM jobs.

Role models, mentoring, internships and counseling can help, said Smith. She added that young women should be told that although there is a persistent pay gap between men and women in the U.S., STEM occupations have a much narrower gap. “STEM is one of the most equal opportunity employers.”

Rothwell rejects the notion that some individuals or groups of Americans are not well suited to STEM training. “It’s like any other language—the more exposure you get to it, the more fluent you become with it.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Recruiting Native Americans for STEM Careers, SHRM Online Staffing Management Discipline, January 2013

Science, Math Programs Designed to Build Needed Workplace Skills, SHRM Online Organizational & Employee Development Discipline, November 2011

Report: Business Leaders Need to Transform STEM Education, SHRM Online Organizational & Employee Development Discipline, April 2011

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