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The State of our Union’s 21st Century Workforce

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Recent and Projected Growth in STEM and Non-STEM Employment

In his State of the Union address, President Obama laid out an ambitious goal to train 2 million workers with the necessary skills to land a job.  What are those skills in a 21st century economy?  As we have written previously in this blog, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) play a critical role in America’s global economic leadership and are vital to securing the highest quality jobs of the future, to decreasing the gender wage gap, and to ensuring America retains global economic leadership through innovation and technology. 

STEM & Employment

In 2010, 7.6 million people or 1 in 18 workers held STEM jobs.  (Watch this space for an update as 2011 data become available.)  Although STEM employment makes up a small fraction of total employment, STEM employment grew rapidly from 2000 to 2010, increasing 7.9 percent while employment in non-STEM jobs grew just 2.6 percent over this period.  (See Figure 1.) The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that STEM jobs will continue growing at a fast clip relative to other occupations: 17.0 percent between 2008-2018 (BLS’ most recent projection), compared to just 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs.

STEM & Education

One of the more striking characteristics of STEM workers is their educational attainment.  More than two-thirds (68 percent) have a college degree or more, compared to just under one-third (31 percent) of other workers age 16 and over.  Nearly one quarter (23 percent) have completed an associate’s degree or at least some college.  Just 9 percent have a high school diploma or less.  Thus the majority of STEM workers tend to be college educated, but opportunities also exist for STEM workers with fewer years of study.

Table 1.  Average hourly earnings of full-time private wage and salary workers in STEM occupations by educational attainment in 2010


Average hourly earnings







High school diploma or less





Some college or associate degree





Bachelor's degree only





Graduate degree










Source:  ESA calculations using Current Population Survey public-use microdata.

STEM & Gender

As we beat the drum about the vital role of STEM in the 21st Century economy and the highest quality quality jobs of the future, the importance of gender – specifically of encouraging more women to move into STEM fields – cannot be overstated.  As we have written previously, these jobs bring women closer to wage parity than non-STEM fields: indeed, women with STEM jobs earn nearly one third more than their counterparts. Yet women remain vastly underrepresented in the STEM workforce as well as among STEM degree holders -- despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and half of the college-educated workforce. It is imperative we seize this opportunity and expand STEM employment in the United States, for a variety of compelling reasons not the least of which is improving our nation’s competitiveness. A few facts about women and STEM:

  • Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.
  • Women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs – considerably higher than the STEM premium for men. As a result, the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs.
  • Women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.
  • Women with a STEM degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or healthcare.

There are many possible factors contributing to the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs, including: a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields. Regardless of the causes, the solution is clear: to encourage and support women in STEM .


Gender Shares of Total and STEM Jobs, 2009

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Degrees vs jobs

Women's low share of STEM undergraduate degrees depends partly on how you define STEM. If you include health and psychology along with the other sciences, women have been getting more and more STEM degrees over the past 20 years. But there is indeed still a huge gender gap in engineering:

But as you point out, degrees don't always lead to jobs in the same field. What's a good source of data for jobs by degree, as in your comment that "Women with a STEM degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation"?

It sounds like there is room for improvement in attracting women to STEM both in the classroom and in the workplace.