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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

Employment Patterns

This section describes the distribution of members of the S&E labor force in the economy. In view of the disjunction between S&E occupations and S&E degrees, this discussion begins with an analysis of data on the educational characteristics of those in S&E occupations and the occupations of workers with S&E degrees. It then describes the institutional sectors in which members of the S&E labor force are employed and provides industry breakdowns within the private sector, which is the largest employer of individuals in S&E occupations. The section also briefly describes the metropolitan areas and size of firms in which S&E degree holders are found.

Because the workforce's capacities for R&D, invention, and innovation are a continuing focus of policy concern, this section also features data on R&D and patenting activities in the workforce. Data on work-related training, which can foster innovation through organizational and individual learning, are also presented.

Educational Distribution of Those in S&E Occupations

Workers in S&E occupations have undergone more formal education than the general workforce (figure 3-5 ). Nonetheless, these occupations include workers with a range of educational qualifications. For all workers in S&E occupations except postsecondary teachers,[5] 2007 ACS data indicate that slightly more than one-quarter had not earned a bachelor's degree. For an additional 44%, a bachelor's was their highest degree. The proportion of workers with advanced degrees was about equal to that of those without a bachelor's degree. Only about 7% of all S&E workers (except postsecondary teachers) had doctorates.

Technical issues of occupational classification may inflate the estimated size of the nonbaccalaureate S&E workforce. Even so, these data indicate that many individuals enter the S&E workforce with marketable technical skills from technical or vocational school training (with or without earned associate's degrees) or college courses, and many acquire such skills through workforce experience or on-the-job training. In information technology, and to some extent in other occupations, employers frequently use certification exams, not formal degrees, to judge skills. (See "Who Performs R&D?" and the discussion in chapter 2.)

Among individuals with at least a bachelor's degree who work in S&E occupations, a large proportion (86%) have at least one S&E degree, and 74% have S&E degrees only (table 3-3 ). S&E workers who have both S&E and non-S&E degrees very likely earned their first bachelor's degree in S&E, even if their highest degree was not in an S&E field. Among workers in S&E occupations, the most common degrees are in engineering (37%) and computer and mathematical sciences (21%) (figure 3-6 ).

Employment in Non-S&E Occupations

S&E degree holders work in all manner of jobs. For example, they work in S&E-related jobs such as health occupations (1.3 million workers) or in S&E managerial positions (267,000 workers), but they also hold non-S&E jobs such as college and precollege teachers in non-S&E areas (622,000 workers) or work in social services occupations (632,000 workers). In 2006, 6.2 million workers whose highest degree was in an S&E field did not work in an S&E occupation. Some 1.1 million worked in S&E-related occupations, while just over 5.0 million worked in non-S&E jobs. The largest category of non-S&E jobs was management and management-related occupations, with 1.4 million workers, followed by sales and marketing occupations, with 990,000 workers (NSF/SRS 2006).

Only about 39% of college graduates whose highest degree is in an S&E field work in S&E occupations (figure 3-7 ). The proportion is higher for those with more advanced degrees. The overall proportion varies substantially by field, ranging from engineering (66%) at the top, followed closely by computer and mathematical sciences (59%) and physical sciences (55%). Although a smaller percentage (31%) of biological/agricultural sciences degree holders work in S&E occupations, an additional 25% of persons with degrees in these fields work in S&E-related occupations. Individuals with social science degrees (14%) are least likely to work in S&E occupations. This pattern of field differences generally characterizes individuals whose highest degree is either a bachelor's or a master's. At the doctoral level, these field differences shrink substantially.

By field, holders of degrees in computer and mathematical sciences and engineering most often work in the broad occupation group in which they were trained (51% and 45%, respectively). S&E doctorate holders more often work in the same broad S&E occupation (64%) compared with individuals whose highest degree is an S&E bachelor's (24%) (appendix table 3-1 ).

Relationships Between Jobs and Degrees

Most individuals with S&E highest degrees who work in S&E-related and non-S&E occupations do not see themselves as working entirely outside their field of degree. Rather, they indicate that their jobs are either closely (31%) or somewhat (32%) related to their degree field (table 3-4 ). Among those in managerial and management-related occupations, for example, 31% characterize their jobs as closely related and 41% as somewhat related. Almost half (47%) of workers in sales and marketing say their S&E degrees are closely or somewhat related to their jobs. Among S&E precollege teachers whose highest degree is in S&E, 74% say their jobs are closely related to their degrees.

Workers with more advanced S&E education more often do work that is at least somewhat related to their field of degree. One to 4 years after receiving their degrees, 96% of S&E doctorate holders say that they have jobs closely or somewhat related to their degree field, compared with 92% of master's degree holders and 72% of bachelor's degree holders (figure 3-8 ). Even when the fit between an individual's job and field of degree is assessed using a stricter criterion ("closely related"), the data indicate that many S&E bachelor's degree holders who received their degree 1–4 years earlier are working in jobs that use skills developed during their college training (figure 3-9 ). In the natural sciences and engineering fields, about half characterized their jobs as closely related to their field of degree: 57% in engineering and physical sciences, 50% in computer sciences, and 48% in biological/agricultural sciences. The comparable figure for social science graduates (30%) was substantially lower.

The stronger relationship between S&E jobs and S&E degrees at higher degree levels holds at all career stages, as evidenced by comparisons among groups of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree holders at comparable numbers of years since degree award. However, for each group, the relationship between job and field of degree becomes weaker over time. There are many reasons for this decline: individuals may change their career interests, gain skills in different areas, take on general management responsibilities, forget some of their original college training, or even find that some of their original college training has become obsolete. Against this background, the career-cycle decline in the relevance of an S&E degree appears modest.

Figure 3-10 and 3-11 summarize the loose relationship among jobs, degrees, and individuals' perceptions of the expertise they need to do their work. In figure 3-10, the intersecting area, which shows individuals whose highest degree is in S&E who are working in S&E occupations, is less than one-third the size of the area comprising individuals with only one or the other attribute. Figure 3-11 compares the following three groups of individuals who hold at least a bachelor's degree: those in S&E occupations, those whose highest degree is in S&E and who say their job is at least somewhat related to their degree, and those who say they need at least a bachelor's degree level of S&E expertise to perform their job. In 2003, the most recent year in which the SESTAT surveys asked about S&E technical expertise, about 15 million Americans fell in one or more of these categories. Only 21% had all three characteristics, and just over half had only one. Even among those in S&E occupations, only about two-thirds also had S&E degrees, had jobs at least somewhat related to S&E, and believed they needed at least a bachelor's degree level of S&E expertise. Among the people who claimed they needed the technical expertise associated with an S&E bachelor's degree for their job, more than half said either that their job was unrelated to their actual degree or that their highest degree was not in S&E.

Work-Related Training

Education for most scientists and engineers does not end when they receive their college degree. About two-thirds of SESTAT survey respondents (persons who received a bachelor's degree or higher in S&E, or S&E-related fields, plus persons holding a non-S&E bachelor's or higher degree who were employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation) participated in work-related training in 2006. Those in S&E-related occupations (health-related occupations, S&E managers, S&E precollege teachers, and S&E technicians and technologists) had the highest participation rate (79%) (table 3-5 ).

Most who took training did so to improve skills or knowledge in their current occupational field (56%) (appendix table 3-3 ). Others did so for licensure/certification in their current occupational field (21%) or because it was required or expected by their employer (14%).

Women participated in work-related training at a higher rate than men: 72% compared with 64% of men (appendix table 3-4 ). Smaller percentages of the oldest (aged 65 and older) and youngest (24 and under) age groups of workers attended training. SESTAT survey respondents at companies of all sizes took work-related training, but more of those who worked for larger organizations did so: 58% of respondents working in organizations with 10 or fewer people compared with 72% in organizations that employ 500 to 24,999 people (appendix table 3-5 ).

Who Performs R&D?

Although individuals with S&E degrees use their knowledge in many ways, there is a special interest in work in research and development. R&D creates new knowledge and new types of goods and services that fuel economic growth. (See sidebar,"Patenting Activity of Scientists and Engineers.") Figure 3-12 shows the distribution of individuals with S&E degrees, by degree level, who report R&D as a major work activity—the activity involving the greatest or second greatest number of work hours from a list of 14 choices.

Individuals with doctorates constitute only 6% of all individuals with S&E degrees but represent 12% of individuals who report R&D as a major work activity. However, the majority of S&E degree holders who report R&D as a major work activity have only bachelor's degrees (53%). An additional 31% have master's degrees and 4% have professional degrees, mostly in medicine.

Figure 3-13 shows the distribution by field of highest degree of individuals whose highest degree is in S&E and who reported R&D as a major work activity. Individuals with engineering degrees constitute more than one-third (36%) of the total R&D workforce, followed by those with social science degrees (22%).

Individuals who are in non-S&E occupations do much R&D. Table 3-6 shows the occupational distribution of S&E degree holders who report R&D as a major work activity. Twenty-six percent of those for whom R&D is a major work activity are in non-S&E occupations. Among those S&E degree holders whose jobs have them spend at least 10% of their time on R&D, 39% are in non-S&E occupations (lawyers or S&E managers, for example).

Figure 3-14 shows the percentages of S&E doctorate holders reporting R&D as a major work activity by field of degree and by years since receipt of doctorate. Individuals working in physical sciences and engineering report the highest R&D rates over their career cycles, and those in the social sciences report the lowest R&D rates. The percentage of doctorate holders engaged in R&D activities declines with increasing time since award of the degree. The decline may reflect movement into management or other career interests. It may also reflect increased opportunity for more experienced scientists to perform functions involving the interpretation and use of, as opposed to the creation of, scientific knowledge.

Employment Sectors

Individuals with S&E degrees are employed in all sectors of the U.S. economy. For-profit firms are their largest employer, but substantial numbers work in academia, nonprofit organizations, and government, or are self-employed.

For-profit firms employ the greatest number of individuals with S&E degrees (figure 3-15 ). They employed 47% of all individuals whose highest degree is in S&E and 28% of S&E doctorate holders. For those with an S&E doctorate, 4-year colleges and universities are an important but not a majority employer (42%). This 42% includes tenured and tenure-track faculty, individuals in postdoc and other temporary positions, and individuals with teaching, research, and administrative functions.

The OES survey provides more detailed estimates for sectors of employment, although it excludes the self-employed and those employed in recent startups (figure 3-16 ). The largest such employment segment for S&E occupations was "professional, scientific, and technical services" with 29%, followed by manufacturing with 17%. Government and educational services sectors each had less than 11% of total employment in S&E occupations in 2007.

More than 1.7 million workers whose highest degree is in S&E were self-employed in 2006, 17% of the total (NSF/SRS 2006). This SESTAT estimate of S&E self-employment is much higher than others that have been published elsewhere because it uses a different definition. Most reports of federal data on self-employment include only individuals whose businesses are unincorporated. While only a minority (33%) of all self-employed workers in the United States work in incorporated businesses (Census Bureau 2007), the reverse is true for those whose highest degree is in S&E. As shown in figure 3-17 , adding "incorporated self-employed" greatly increases the proportion of workers whose highest degree is in S&E who are also self-employed. The rate of incorporated self-employment is much higher for individuals with S&E degrees than for the U.S. workforce as a whole, where only 11% are self-employed, and only one-third of those are incorporated (Census Bureau 2007). Among those whose highest degree is in S&E who are also self-employed, 64% work in incorporated businesses. Similar to other types of employment for S&E degree holders, 64% of self-employed workers whose highest degree is in S&E report that their job is related to the field of their highest degree (NSF/SRS 2006).

The proportion of self-employed workers generally decreases by level of degree and increases with age (see figures 3-17 and 3-18 ). While 18% of S&E bachelor's degree holders are self-employed, the proportion falls to 11% for S&E doctorate holders. However, self-employment increases with age at all degree levels. By age 60–64 self-employment reached about 30% for bachelor's and master's degree holders and 20% for S&E doctorate holders.

The rates of self-employment are similar across broad S&E fields, at the bachelor's degree level ranging from 14.8% in computer and mathematical sciences to 20.4% in the physical sciences (see figure 3-19 ). The highest self-employment rate among doctorate holders occurs in the social sciences (19%) and the lowest (6%) in computer and mathematical sciences.

Federal S&E Employment
The United States federal government is a major employer of scientists and engineers, largely limited to those with U.S. citizenship.[6] According to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the federal government employed approximately 210,000 persons in S&E occupations in 2005. Many of these workers were in occupations that, nationwide, include relatively large concentrations of foreign-born persons, some of whom are non-citizens, rendering them ineligible for many federal jobs. Among federal employees, 59% were in science occupations and 41% were in engineering occupations. The Department of Defense was the largest employer, with nearly 45% of the federal S&E workforce (NSF/SRS 2008a).

With regard to gender, the federal S&E workforce (defined by occupation) generally reflects the total S&E workforce. Women make up 26% of all U.S. employees in S&E occupations; for federal employees, the comparable proportion is 25%. The number of women in federal S&E positions shows a consistent decrease as age increases beyond the ages of 40–49; this is also true of the whole S&E workforce.

The S&E workforce at large is younger than the federal S&E workforce. Twenty-eight percent of the general S&E workforce is under 35 years of age, with only 15% of those in federal S&E occupations in that age group (appendix table 3-9 ).

S&E Occupation Density by Industry

High-technology employers are not the only companies who hire individuals in S&E occupations. As shown in table 3-7 , workers with high-technology knowledge are found in industries with very different percentages of S&E occupations as a portion of total employment. Almost 1 million workers in S&E jobs are employed in industries whose S&E employment component is less than the national average of 4.2%. These industries employ 79% of all workers and 18% of all workers in S&E occupations. Illustrative examples include local government (at 3.0%, with 163,000 S&E jobs), hospitals (at 1.4%, with 68,000 S&E jobs), and plastic parts manufacturers (at 2.6%, with 16,000 S&E jobs).

Industries with higher proportions of individuals in S&E occupations tend to pay higher average salaries to both their S&E and non-S&E workers. The average salary of workers in non-S&E occupations employed in industries where more than 40% of workers are in S&E occupations is nearly double the average salary of workers in non-S&E occupations in industries with below-average proportions of workers in S&E occupations ($71,550 versus $36,146).

Metropolitan Areas

The availability of highly skilled workers can be relevant to an area's economic competitiveness. Two measures of availability with regard to S&E occupations are (1) the number of workers in S&E occupations and (2) the proportion of the entire metropolitan workforce that S&E occupations represent. These estimates should be used with care in comparing areas because the geographic scope of a metropolitan area varies significantly from city to city.

The Census Bureau divides some larger metropolitan areas into metropolitan divisions, and these divisions are used in comparisons with smaller metropolitan areas. Accordingly, table 3-8 lists metropolitan divisions with the largest estimated proportion of the workforce employed in S&E occupations. Table 3-9 lists areas and divisions with the largest estimated total number of workers employed in S&E occupations. Table 3-10 presents these data for larger metropolitan areas with multiple metropolitan divisions. These data are for May 2007.

The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara and Boulder metropolitan areas had 14.3% and 14.2% of their workforces employed in S&E occupations, respectively. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara had 18.2% of their workers in STEM occupations. No metropolitan areas had higher estimates for S&E or STEM occupations. Although the metropolitan areas with the highest estimated proportion of S&E employment are mainly smaller and perhaps less economically diverse, Washington, DC, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose also appear on the list of metropolitan areas with the greatest intensity of S&E occupational employment.

The largest numbers of workers in S&E occupations are in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, New York-White Plains-Wayne, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, and Chicago-Naperville-Joliet metropolitan divisions. These divisions have very large and diverse workforces even after being broken off from their larger metropolitan areas. With the exception of Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, each of these areas has about the same proportion of workers in S&E occupations as the national workforce.

Looking just at the larger metropolitan areas, without breaking them into divisions, New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island has the largest number (350,670) of individuals employed in S&E occupations but the same proportion (4.2%) as the workforce nationwide (see table 3-10 and figure 3-3 ).

Employer Size

For individuals whose highest degree is in S&E and who are employed in business/industry, the distribution of employer size is shown in figure 3-20 . Across all degree levels, companies with fewer than 100 employees employ 36% of S&E degree holders. About 33% work at large firms with more than 5,000 employees. In general, there is a similar pattern of employment across employer size by degree levels, except that S&E doctorate holders are more concentrated at very small firms.


[5] Many comparisons using Census Bureau data on occupations are limited to looking at all S&E occupations except postsecondary teachers because the current U.S. occupation taxonomy does not break out these teachers by field. Only NSF surveys of scientists and engineers collect data on postsecondary teachers by field.
[6] Only U.S. citizens and nationals may be appointed in the competitive civil service; however, federal agencies may employ certain noncitizens who meet specific employability requirements in the excepted service or the Senior Executive Service.

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