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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force


Scope of the S&E Workforce

The S&E workforce has shown sustained growth for more than half a century.

  • The number of workers in S&E occupations grew from about 182,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million in 2009. This represents an average annual growth rate of 5.9%, much greater than the 1.2% growth rate for the total workforce older than age 18 during this period.
  • Workforce growth in S&E occupations from 2000 to 2009 was slower than in the two preceding decades. Nonetheless, at 1.4% annually, it exceeded the rate (0.2%) for the general workforce, which barely grew at all.

Many workers outside S&E occupations have S&E training or use related knowledge and skills in their jobs.

  • Individuals with an S&E bachelor's degree or higher (17.2 million in 2008) or whose highest degree was in S&E (12.6 million in 2008) substantially outnumbered those working in S&E occupations.
  • In 2008, about two-thirds of those with an S&E highest degree but not working in an S&E occupation reported that their job was either closely or somewhat related to their degree.

S&E Workers in the Economy

Scientists and engineers work for all types of employers.

  • For-profit firms employed 59% of all individuals whose highest degree was in S&E but only 35% of those holding S&E doctorates.
  • Academic institutions employed about 41% of individuals with S&E doctorates, including those in postdoc or other temporary positions.
  • About 19% of workers whose highest degree was in S&E reported they were self-employed in 2008, with two-thirds in incorporated businesses.
  • Small firms are important employers of those with S&E highest degrees. Firms with fewer than 100 persons employ 36% of them.

S&E Labor Market Conditions

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

  • Half of the workers in S&E occupations earned $73,290 or more in 2010, more than double the median earnings ($33,840) 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.
  • 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.

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 rates for S&E doctorate holders are generally much lower than for those at other degree levels.

Demographics of the S&E Workforce

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

  • Women constituted 38% of employed individuals with a highest degree in an S&E field in 2008, but their proportion is smaller in most S&E occupations.
  • From 1993 through 2008, growth occurred in both the share of workers with a highest degree in an S&E field who are women (increasing from 31% to 38%) and the share of women in S&E occupations (increasing from 21% to 26%).
  • Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (53%) and biological and medical sciences (51%) and relatively low shares in engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%).

Race and ethnicity are salient factors in rates of participation in the S&E workforce.

  • Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians/Alaska Natives make up a smaller share of the S&E workforce, with 9% of workers in S&E occupations and 11% of S&E degree holders in 2008, than their proportion in the general population, with 26% of U.S. residents from ages 20 to 70.
  • Asians work in S&E occupations at higher rates (17%) than their representation in the U.S. working-age population (5%). Asians are particularly highly concentrated in computer and information science occupations (22% Asian).
  • Within every S&E occupation, more than half of all workers are non-Hispanic whites.

A variety of indicators point to a decline during the recent economic downturn in the immigration of foreign scientists and engineers.

  • After an upward trend in the number of temporary work visas issued to scientists and engineers for most of the decade, the number fell sharply in 2009. H-1B visas fell to 2003 levels, dropping to 72% of the number issued in 2007.
  • Both the number and percentage of S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas reporting plans to stay in the United States peaked in 2007 and declined in 2009 after rising since 2002.
  • The proportion of S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas who remained in the United States 5 years after receiving their degrees rose from 45% to 67% between 1989 and 2005 but fell to 62% in 2009.

The baby boom portion of the S&E workforce continues to age, nearing retirement.

  • From 1993 to 2008, the median age of scientists and engineers in the U.S. workforce rose from 37 to 41. The proportion over age 50 increased from 18% to 27%.
  • Between 1993 and 2008, increasing percentages of scientists and engineers in their 60s reported that they were still in the labor force. Whereas 59% of S&E degree holders between the ages of 60 and 64 were employed in 1993, the comparable percentage rose to 66% in 2006 before declining slightly in 2008.

Global S&E Labor Force

Worldwide, the number of workers engaged in research has been growing since at least 1995.

  • Among countries with large numbers of researchers, growth has been most rapid in China, where the number of researchers tripled, and South Korea, where it doubled.
  • The United States and the European Union experienced steady growth but at a lower rate than in China or South Korea; both increased from about 1 million in 1995 to nearly 1.5 million in 2007.
  • Japan and Russia were exceptions to the worldwide trend: in Japan, the number of researchers remained essentially unchanged, and in Russia the number declined.

Among businesses located in the United States, R&D employment is disproportionately domestic.

  • Although about one-third of total employment in these firms is located abroad, only one-quarter of R&D employment is in foreign locations.
  • In manufacturing, the disparity between overall employment in foreign locations (41%) and R&D employment in these locations (25%) is substantial; for nonmanufacturing employment, the comparable proportions—24% for overall employment and 23% for R&D employment—are similar.

Preliminary 2009 data indicate a substantial shift in the balance between R&D employment by U.S. firms abroad and R&D employment by foreign firms in the United States.

  • Whereas R&D employment abroad by U.S. multinational companies (MNCs) nearly doubled between 2004 and 2009, domestic R&D employment by these firms increased by less than 5% in the same period.
  • U.S. MNCs employed many more R&D workers in foreign locations in 2009 than foreign firms employed in the United States. In contrast, these two numbers had been similar in 2004.