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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7
Research Matters

Is the STEM Job Shortage Overhyped?

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How our graduates really fare when exploring STEM-related fields.

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Recently, I’ve been perplexed when, amid low unemployment rates, a surprising number of young people that I know graduate with STEM degrees from selective colleges and are unable to find work in their chosen fields. Given what seems like a torrent of warnings of looming STEM labor shortages imperiling our nation’s future (West, 2023), I assumed employers would be falling over themselves to hire graduates like these.  
That left me wondering: Could the hullabaloo about STEM workforce shortages be overblown? A handful of graduates is, of course, an inadequate sample from which to draw conclusions, so what might we glean from ­government data about the job prospects of those who earn STEM degrees?

How Big Is the STEM Labor Market?  

Maybe not as big as you might think. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are but a small sliver (6.2 percent) of the overall U.S. workforce—10.3 million out of 164.4 million jobs (2023). Federal agencies, however, have different definitions of STEM work. The Labor Bureau’s tally, for example, includes social science occupations as well as managerial, teaching, and sales occupations that require technical knowledge. However, it excludes healthcare occupations in its estimate. Including these (as the National Science Foundation and National Science Board do) yields a larger, yet still modest, number of college-educated STEM occupations in the United States: 14.5 million jobs or 9.3 percent of the workforce (NSF/NSB, 2021).  

Instead of focusing on four-year degree STEM programs, educators and counselors might consider other meaningful, and often overlooked, pathways to rewarding work.

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Notably, NSF also includes STEM jobs that require two years or less of college but need on-the-job science and math skills (such as aircraft mechanics, construction site supervisors, and heavy machinery operators). Doing so nearly triples the overall size of the STEM workforce to 36 million, or 23.2 percent of the U.S. workforce (NSF/NSB, 2021)—but also begs the question of what it means to prepare students for STEM jobs. Instead of focusing on getting students into four-year degree STEM programs, educators and counselors might consider the meaningful, and often overlooked, pathways to rewarding work found in apprenticeship, career and technical education, and associate degree programs.

Is the STEM Labor Market Growing? 

Most likely, yes—but unevenly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects STEM occupations will grow 10.8 percent between 2022 and 2032—faster than the growth rate of the overall workforce (2.3 percent). Yet even as some STEM occupations are expected to expand rapidly (e.g., information security analyst jobs by 31 percent), others will remain flat or shrink (e.g., computer programming jobs by 9 percent) (Zilberman & Ice, 2021).  
However, we might take any predictions with a grain of salt. For example, the Labor Bureau over­estimated (by a factor of 4) the growth of computer and math operations jobs between 2000 and 2010 and then ­underestimated (by half) the growth of these jobs the ­following decade (Hira, 2022).

Are Enough Students Earning STEM Degrees? 

Looks like it. If the Labor Bureau’s projections are to be believed, there will be, on average, about 111,000 new openings for engineering jobs each year in the coming decade (2023). Yet each year, American ­colleges and universities crank out nearly twice that number of engineering diplomas. For example, in 2019, U.S. colleges and universities awarded a total of 144,818 bachelors, 62,682 masters, and 12,372 doctoral degrees in engineering (ASEE, 2020). Not all these graduates enter the workforce each year—some continue their education. Moreover, 61,000-plus are international students (ASEE, 2020) and may return home to work. Nonetheless, the annual supply of new engineers seems more than sufficient to meet the number of jobs.

Do STEM Jobs Pay Better? 

Yes. The average salary of U.S. science and engineering occupations is more than double the average salary of all occupations in the United States ($88,720 vs. $39,810). The median salaries of many STEM jobs requiring a college degree are well over six-figures, such as computer network architects ($125,900), aerospace engineers ($126,000), and physicists ($142,820) (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023). And many middle-skill STEM jobs boast higher salaries than the average for college graduates—for example, ­aircraft mechanics ($70,010), electrical repairers ($93,720), and electrical power dispatchers ($101,650) (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023).

Making Sense of the Data 

So, is the STEM job shortage overhyped? Well, STEM work appears to be good work—if you can get it. Yet with nearly one in four people with STEM degrees working outside their field of study (Cheeseman Day & Martinez, 2021), students shouldn’t assume a STEM diploma will translate into a STEM job, especially if their degree is out of step with current workforce demands.  

We can all probably do a better job helping students see how their interests might align with jobs of the future.

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Notably, the beating heart of the STEM workforce appears to be high-paying, middle-skill jobs that are needed to turn innovations into reality. Consider, for example, electric vehicles. Yes, we need engineers to design them—thousands of them. Yet as a Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis shows, we need hundreds of thousands of middle-skill jobs to build batteries, assemble cars, and install charging stations (Colato & Ice, 2023). In addition, we need countless non-STEM occupations to extract and ship materials to build batteries, convince people to buy electric vehicles, process loans to purchase them, and tow and repair them. 
The real takeaway here might be this: If these data baffle or surprise you, imagine how our students feel. We can all probably do a better job helping students see how their interests might align with jobs of the future—including what jobs are likely to be available, how much they will pay, how they can prepare for them, and perhaps most important, how to be resilient enough to adapt their skills in an ever-changing economy.
References

American Society for Engineering ­Education (ASEE). (2020). Engineering and ­engineering technology by the numbers 2019. Washington, D.C.  

Cheeseman Day, J., & Martinez, A. (2021). Does majoring in STEM lead to a STEM job after graduation? U.S. Census Bureau.  

Colato, J., & Ice, L. (2023, February). Charging into the future: The transition to electric vehicles. Beyond the Numbers: Employment & Unemployment, 12(4). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Hira, R. (2022). Is there really a STEM workforce shortage? Issues in Science and Technology, 38(4), 31–35. 

National Science Foundation, National Science Board. (2021). The STEM labor force of today: Scientists, engineers, and skilled technical workers. Science and Engineering Indicators, NSB-2021-2.  

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. (2023). Table 1.11 employment in STEM occupations, 2022 and projected 2032.  

West, D. M. (2023). Improving workforce development and STEM education to preserve America’s innovation edge. Brookings Institution.  

Zilberman, A., & Ice, L. (2021). Why computer occupations are behind strong STEM employment growth in the 2019–29 decade. Beyond the Numbers: Employment & Unemployment, 10(1). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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