U.S. S&E Workforce: Definition, Size, and Growth

Definition of the S&E Workforce

Because there is no single standard for defining the S&E workforce, this report takes a broad approach to measuring the workforce in multiple ways, including by S&E occupation, S&E field of degree, and use of technical expertise on the job. The S&E workforce (also referred to as scientists and engineers in this report) is defined generally in this report as either those who have an S&E or S&E-related bachelor’s or higher degree or who work in an S&E or S&E-related occupation. However, in most cases, we will specify the workforce analyzed based on type of occupation, degree type and/or level, or—less frequently—by use of technical expertise on the job.

S&E degree fields include computer and mathematical sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and engineering. S&E occupations fall into these same five broad occupational categories and include postsecondary teachers of these same broad fields of study. S&E-related degree fields of study include those in health sciences and health technology and technical fields. S&E-related occupations include those workers in health, precollege science teachers, S&E managers, and S&E technicians and technologists (for a detailed list of the fields of degrees and occupations included in these definitions, see NCSES SESTAT 2013: Table A-1 and A-2).

The bachelor’s degree is the most prevalent S&E degree, accounting for nearly 70% of S&E postsecondary degrees awarded (see Indicators 2020 report "Higher Education in Science and Engineering"). Unless otherwise noted, the data provided here for scientists and engineers include those with at least a bachelor’s degree. An individual’s highest degree—a bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctorate (in the context of this report)—is often an accurate representation of the skills and credentials that one employs in the labor market, which is why the data presented by educational attainment are generally provided for highest degree (in this report, these individuals are referred to as S&E, S&E-related, or non-S&E highest degree holders).

In certain instances, the data allow for analysis of S&E occupations for all educational attainment levels. For example, using data from the Census Bureau (Census) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this report explores workers in S&E occupations, at all education levels. Also, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) is used to analyze the skilled technical workforce (STW). These workers use S&E and technical expertise in their jobs and have some high school, a high school diploma, some college, an associate’s degree, or a similar level of educational attainment (see the Technical Appendix for more details on data and the methodological approach used to define the STW). Individuals in the STW may have certifications and other credentials beyond those earned with a college education at a 2- or 4-year institution, but the ACS does not collect this information.

Unless otherwise specified, the analysis throughout this report will primarily cover the S&E workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Size of the S&E Workforce

The estimated number of scientists and engineers varies based on the criteria used to define the S&E workforce. Estimates range from nearly 7 million workers (with a bachelor’s or higher-level degree) employed in S&E occupations to nearly 25 million individuals who have an S&E degree at the bachelor’s level or higher (Table 3-1). About 18 million individuals attained their highest degree—a bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctorate—in an S&E field. By far, the largest categories of S&E occupations are in computer and mathematical sciences and in engineering; occupations in life, social, and physical sciences each employ a smaller proportion of S&E workers (Figure 3-1). In addition, there are over 17 million workers in the STW, which includes occupations that require significant technological skills and knowledge but do not necessarily require an S&E bachelor’s degree for entry (Table 3-1).

Measures and size of U.S. S&E labor force: 2017

(Number)
Note(s):

The STW includes individuals who are 25 years and older. The totals for at least one degree (at the bachelor's level or higher) in S&E field and highest degree in S&E field include individuals who are employed and those who are unemployed or out of the labor force. Values are rounded to the nearest 1,000. See Table S3-1 for more details.

Source(s):

Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS), 2017, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS); National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Employment in S&E occupations, by broad occupational category: 2017

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey, 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

S&E degree holders outnumber those currently employed in S&E occupations. In 2017, social sciences and engineering were the most common degree fields overall, while the life sciences fields were also prominent fields of study for doctorate holders (Figure 3-2). A majority of S&E highest degree holders (61%) reported that their job was either closely or somewhat related to their field of highest degree (Table S3-1). About a third (35%) of these individuals were employed in occupations not categorized as S&E, suggesting that the application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread across the U.S. economy and not limited to occupations classified as S&E.

S&E degrees among college graduates, by field and level of highest degree: 2017

Note(s):

All highest degree levels includes professional degrees not shown separately.

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

The extensive use of S&E expertise in the workplace is also evident from the number of college graduates who indicate that their job requires technical expertise at the bachelor’s degree level in S&E fields. Nearly 21 million college graduates, regardless of field of degree or occupation, reported that their jobs required at least this level of technical expertise in one or more S&E fields (Table 3-1); this figure is three times as large as the nearly 7 million college graduates employed in S&E occupations.

The S&E workforce has grown faster over time than the overall workforce. Census data show that employment in S&E occupations (at all education levels) grew from about 1.1 million in 1960 to about 7.5 million in 2017 (Figure 3-3). This represents a compound average annual growth rate of 4%, compared to a 2% rate for total employment during this period. S&E occupational employment as a share of total employment nearly tripled (see Technical Appendix for a list of occupations included). From NCSES data, the total number of S&E highest degree holders employed in the United States grew at a 3.5% compound annual growth rate (from 8.9 million to 14.5 million) between 2003 and 2017. All broad S&E degree fields exhibited growth (Figure 3-4). See sidebar Projected Growth of Employment in S&E Occupations for BLS data on occupational projections for the period 2016–26.

Individuals employed in S&E occupations in the United States: Selected years, 1960–2017

Note(s):

Data include individuals at all education levels.

Source(s):

Census Bureau, Decennial Census, 1960–2000; Minnesota Population Center, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, International: Version 7.1, Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS (2018); and American Community Survey (ACS), 2010, 2017, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Compound annual growth rate in the total number of employed individuals with highest degree in S&E, by field and level of highest degree: 2003–17

Source(s):

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

A number of factors have contributed to the growth in the S&E workforce over time: the rising demand for S&E skills in a global and highly technological economic landscape; increases in U.S. S&E degrees earned by women, racial and ethnic minority groups, and foreign-born individuals; temporary and permanent migration to the United States of those with foreign S&E educations; and the rising number of scientists and engineers who are delaying their retirement.

Projected Growth of Employment in S&E Occupations