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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force


The S&E workforce has shown sustained growth for over half a century, and growth is projected to continue into the future.

  • The number of workers in S&E occupations grew from about 182,000 in 1950 to 5.5 million in 2007. This represents an average annual growth rate of 6.2%, nearly 4 times the 1.6% growth rate for the total workforce older than age 18 during this period.
  • More recently, from 2004 to 2007, S&E workforce growth averaged 3.2% but was still twice as high as that of the total U.S. workforce.
  • The sustained U.S. S&E workforce growth rests largely on three factors: increased S&E degree production, immigration of scientists and engineers, and few retirements because of the relative youth of the S&E workforce compared to the total U.S. workforce.

Scientists and engineers can be categorized in many ways, including by occupation and by degree field.

  • Defined by occupation, the U.S. S&E workforce totaled between 4.3 million and 5.8 million people in 2006.
  • Individuals with an S&E bachelor's degree or higher (16.6 million) or whose highest degree was in S&E (12.4 million) substantially outnumbered those working in S&E occupations.
  • The majority of those with an S&E degree but working in non-S&E occupations report that their jobs are related to their degree.

R&D is an important activity for the S&E workforce.

  • The majority of S&E degree holders who report R&D as a major work activity have bachelor's degrees as their highest degree (53%); only 12% have doctorates.
  • Engineering degree holders comprise more than one-third (36%) of the total R&D workforce; those with degrees in computer sciences and mathematics constitute another 17%.
  • Well above half of doctorate holders in most S&E fields report participating in R&D; the exception is those with social science doctorates.
  • Among all scientists and engineers named on patent applications from fall 1998 to fall 2003, 41% held a bachelor's degree, 31% a master's degree, and 24% a doctorate.

Scientists and engineers work for all types of employers.

  • For-profit firms employed 47% of all individuals whose highest degree is in S&E but only 28% of S&E doctorate holders.
  • Academic institutions employed about 42% of individuals with S&E doctorates, including those in postdocs or other temporary positions.
  • About 17% of employed workers whose highest degree was in S&E (1.7 million workers) reported they were self-employed in 2006, with two-thirds in incorporated businesses.

S&E occupations are found throughout industry.

  • Industries with above-average proportions of S&E jobs tend to pay higher average salaries to both their S&E and non-S&E workers.
  • Small firms are important employers of those with science or engineering degrees. Firms with fewer than 100 persons employ 36% of them.

Aging and retirement patterns are likely to alter the composition of the S&E labor force.

  • Absent changes in degree production, immigration, and retirement patterns, the number of S&E-trained persons in the workforce will continue to grow, but at a slowing rate, as more S&E workers reach traditional retirement age (26% were older than age 50 in 2006).
  • Across all S&E degree levels, by age 61 about half of S&E workers are no longer working full time; for doctorate holders, half no longer work full time by age 66.
  • A much larger proportion of doctorate holders than those with bachelor's and master's degrees are near retirement age.

Women remain underrepresented in the S&E workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past.

  • Women constituted two-fifths (40%) of those with S&E degrees in 2006, but their proportion is smaller in most S&E occupations.
  • As more women than men have entered the S&E workforce over the decades, their proportion in S&E occupations rose from 12% in 1980 to 27% in 2007.
  • Women in the S&E workforce are on average younger than men, suggesting that larger proportions of men than of women may retire in the near future, thus changing these sex ratios.

The proportion of blacks and Hispanics in the S&E labor force is lower than their proportion in the general population; the reverse is true for Asians/Pacific Islanders.

  • The proportions of blacks and Hispanics in S&E occupations have continued to grow over time. However, these groups remain underrepresented relative to their proportions in the total population.
  • Blacks, Hispanics, and other underrepresented minorities together constitute 24% of the U.S. population, 13% of college graduates, and 10% of the college-degreed in S&E occupations.
  • The proportion of blacks in nonacademic S&E occupations was 3% in 1980 and 5% in 2007; that of Hispanics was 2% and 4%, respectively.
  • At the doctoral level, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives combined represented just over 4% of employment in nonacademic S&E occupations in 1990 and 6% in 2007.
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders constitute 5% of the U.S. population, 7% of college graduates, and 14% of those in S&E occupations; most of them (82%) are foreign born.

Workers with S&E degrees or occupations tend to earn more than other comparable workers.

  • Half of the workers in S&E occupations earned $70,600 or more in 2007, more than double the median earnings ($31,400) of the total U.S. workforce.
  • Workers with S&E degrees, regardless of their occupations, earn more than workers with comparable-level degrees in other fields.

Especially at lower education levels, people whose work is associated with S&E are less often exposed to unemployment.

  • Unemployment rates for those in S&E occupations tend to be lower than those for all college-degreed individuals and much lower than those of persons with less than a bachelor's degree.
  • Unemployment data through September 2009 illustrate the advantages occurring to those whose jobs involve S&E: 9.7% unemployment for all workers, 7.6% for S&E technicians and computer programmers, 5.4% for all bachelor's degree holders, and 5.5% for those in S&E occupations.
  • For the 12 months beginning in September 2008, unemployment rates rose sharply for all workers, moving from 6.1% to 9.7%. Substantial increases occurred for technicians and programmers (4.9 percentage points) and workers in S&E occupations (3.3 percentage points), which exceeded those for all bachelor degree holders (2.3 percentage points).
  • The unemployment rates for S&E doctorate holders are generally much lower than for those at other degree levels.

Postdoc positions are increasingly common, but their frequency is different in different disciplines.

  • The total number of postdocs in the United States is unknown. About half of the known postdocs in 2005 are in the biological and other life sciences.
  • The incidence of individuals taking S&E postdoc positions during their careers has risen, from about 31% of those with a pre-1972 doctorate to 46% of those receiving their doctorate in 2002–05.
  • A majority of doctorate holders in the life or physical sciences now have a postdoc position as part of their career path; so do 30% or more of doctorate holders in mathematics and computer sciences, social sciences, and engineering.

The importance of foreign-born scientists and engineers to the S&E enterprise in the United States continues to grow.

  • Twenty-five percent of all college-educated workers in S&E occupations in 2003 were foreign born, as were 40% of doctorate holders in S&E occupations.
  • More than 40% of all university-educated foreign-born workers had their highest degree from a foreign institution, up from about half that percentage before the 1980s.
  • From 2003 to 2007, the shares of the foreign born among master's degree and doctorate holders rose 2 percentage points each.
  • About half of all foreign-born scientists and engineers are from Asia, including: 16% from India; 11% from China; 4% to 6% each from the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.
  • More than a third of U.S.-resident doctorate holders come from China (22%) and India (14%).

The number of most types of temporary work visas issued to high-skilled workers has continued to increase from their post-9/11 lows.

  • More temporary visas are issued than are used.
  • H-1B temporary work visas are restricted to 65,000 annually, with 20,000 exemptions for students earning U.S. master's degrees or doctorates and further exemptions for U.S. academic and research institutions in their own hiring.
  • Over two-thirds of H-1B visas were issued for S&E occupations, with a large portion of the remainder for closely related work.
  • More than half of all H-1B visa recipients were from India; Asian citizens made up three-quarters of all H-1B visa recipients.

Most foreign doctoral students choose to remain in the United States after earning their degree.

  • The 5-year stay rate for foreign doctoral students showed a small decline: 62% of 2002 doctorate recipients were in the country in 2007, down from 65% for the class of 2000 but remaining near its record high.
  • Overall declines in stay rates reflect lower rates for doctorate recipients from some locations (e.g., Taiwan, Japan, and India), whereas stay rates for students from other countries (e.g., the United Kingdom and Germany) increased.
  • Tentative evidence suggests that foreign students who receive their doctorates from highly rated departments may have long-term (5-year) stay rates that are below the rates for those who receive their doctorates from less highly reputed departments.

The capability to work in science and technology has increased throughout the world.

  • There are no comprehensive measures of the global S&E labor force, but fragmentary data suggest that the U.S. world share is continuing to decline.
  • Data on the number of researchers compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show moderate average growth from 1995 to 2007 for established scientific nations and regions, in contrast to rapid growth in selected developing regions.
  • Over about a decade, the estimated number of U.S. researchers rose by 40% to about 1.4 million in 2007, that of the European Union to 1.4 million, and Japan's to about 710,000.
  • The number of researchers in China rose to an estimated 1.4 million, comparable to the estimates for the EU-27 and the United States.

R&D employment of multinational companies (MNCs) has been increasing.

  • In 2004 U.S.-based MNCs employed about 854,000 research and development (R&D) workers globally, 16% of them overseas in majority-owned subsidiaries, compared with about 727,000 researchers in 1994 (14% of them overseas).
  • From 1994 to 2004, R&D employment of foreign-based MNCs in the United States rose from about 90,000 to 129,000.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010