Scientists and engineers are the backbone of the creation, development, and application of STEM knowledge and expertise in the U.S. economy. Reflecting this historical context, previous Indicators reports focused on workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in S&E occupations: mathematical and computer scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, social scientists, and engineers. However, many other occupations increasingly require STEM skills and expertise to adapt and maintain new processes and technologies (e.g., health care; construction trades; installation, maintenance, and repair; and production occupations). Unlike previous Indicators reports, which narrowly focused on workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in S&E occupations, this report broadly defines workers in STEM at all educational levels across a wide range of occupations that are integral to the creation of new products and processes using STEM knowledge and technical skills. As a result, the STEM workforce makes up nearly a quarter of the total workforce in the United States, with less than one-fourth of these workers having a bachelor’s degree or higher and working in S&E occupations.
Within the STEM workforce, differences in employment by sector, industry, and location arise between workers based on educational backgrounds. For example, the for-profit business sector is the primary employer of STEM workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, but 4-year academic institutions continue to be the primary employer of STEM doctorate holders. However, since the early 1990s, for-profit businesses employ an increasing share of doctorate-holding STEM workers, which may reflect the increasing dominance of businesses in R&D performance and funding. STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree, also known as STW, are highly concentrated in the medical industry, construction, and manufacturing industries. In terms of location, STEM workers with at least a bachelor’s degree are found mostly in coastal states where innovation hubs are located, whereas the STW is concentrated in the Southern and Midwestern regions.
Workers in STEM occupations tend to have favorable labor market outcomes compared to non-STEM workers, including higher salaries and lower unemployment rates (even during the COVID-19 pandemic). However, these benefits are not equally distributed across sex and race or ethnicity. While women, Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians or Alaska Natives have increased in number and proportion of the general population over the past decades, they still remain underrepresented in STEM. In addition, these underrepresented groups tend to be paid less on average than their male and Asian and White counterparts. Lastly, most of the analysis in this report is based on pre-pandemic data, and major structural shifts in the STEM labor market may have occurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, preliminary evidence shows that compared to men, women in STEM were disproportionately more affected by COVID-19 in terms of unemployment, research activities, and publishing (Krukowski, Jagsi, and Cardel 2020; Kowal et al. 2020). Such a change can have lasting effects on the disparities between men and women in STEM for several years in the future.
Foreign-born workers account for a considerable share of STEM employment in the United States, but the flow of foreign-born workers to the United States may also be disrupted by COVID-19. Temporary visa holders, a subset of foreign-born workers, comprise a large proportion of U.S.-trained STEM doctorate holders; the bulk of these students remain in the United States and work in occupations aligned with their doctoral field of study after graduation. However, international enrollment at U.S. institutions dropped during the pandemic, as discussed in the forthcoming Indicators 2022 report, “Higher Education in Science and Engineering,” and other sources (Baer and Martel 2020). Changes in where students go to school during the pandemic could have long-term effects on the noncitizen STEM workforce in the future. In addition, changes to current H-1B visa programs may also restrict noncitizen immigration to the United States (DHS/USCIS 2020b; 2020c; DOL 2020b), and these changes are not shown in the data presented in this analysis.
The STEM labor force is comprehensive and diverse, made up of workers at all education levels in a wide variety of occupations that use STEM knowledge and expertise. Many factors, including STEM training pathways and career opportunities, global competition, and demographic trends, among others, may affect the availability of workers equipped with STEM expertise as well as the type of jobs that the U.S. economy generates in the future. Timely analysis of STEM labor force trends provides the policy-relevant information needed to understand the dynamic S&E landscape in the United States and globally.