The S&E labor force may be defined in a variety of ways. At its core are individuals in S&E occupations, with S&E degrees, using knowledge and skills closely related to their S&E training, and working in jobs that make use of this expertise. But in a modern knowledge-based economy many workers have one or two of these attributes rather than all of them. Nonetheless, by any plausible definition, the S&E labor force experienced strong growth in the United States and the world throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Policymakers with otherwise divergent perspectives agree that jobs involving S&E are good for workers and good for the economy as a whole. These jobs pay more, even when compared to jobs requiring similar amounts of education and experience. Workers with S&E training or in S&E occupations are less likely to be unemployed. Industries with higher proportions of workers in S&E occupations tend to offer higher pay even to their employees who are in other lines of work.
Worldwide, growing numbers of workers are engaged in research. Growth has been especially marked in rapidly developing economies, such as South Korea and China, that have either recently joined the ranks of the world's developed economies or are poised to do so. Mature developed economies in North America and Europe have maintained slower growth, while the number of researchers in the struggling Japanese economy has been stagnant.
The United States has shown some recent signs of slower growth: little change in the number of trained workers in S&E occupations, an aging S&E workforce that is drawing nearer to retirement (though showing signs of delaying retirement to somewhat later ages), and a modest drop during the most recent recession in the proportion of foreign recipients of U.S. advanced S&E degrees who join the U.S. labor force. At the same time, members of historically underrepresented groups (e.g., women, blacks) have played an increasing role in the U.S. S&E labor force, although more so in some fields (e.g., biological and social sciences) than in others (e.g., mathematical and physical sciences and engineering). In addition, the United States has remained an attractive destination for foreign workers with advanced S&E training.
Numerous factors beyond the availability of workers equipped to use S&E knowledge and skills on the job will affect the kinds of jobs that the U.S. economy generates in the future. As a result, data on current labor force trends do not necessarily portend future patterns that will emerge in a dynamic world economy recovering from the shocks produced by a prolonged economic downturn.