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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force


U.S. S&E Workforce: Definition, Size, and Growth

The S&E workforce can be defined in several ways: by workers in S&E occupations, by holders of S&E degrees, and by the use of S&E technical expertise on the job. The estimated size of the S&E workforce varies depending on the criteria chosen.

  • In 2010, estimates of the size of the U.S. S&E workforce ranged from approximately 5 million to more than 19 million depending on the definition used.
  • In 2010, there were about 5.4 million college graduates employed in S&E occupations in the United States. Occupations in the computer and mathematical sciences (2.4 million) and engineering (1.6 million) were the largest categories of S&E occupations. Occupations in the life sciences (597,000), social sciences (518,000), and physical sciences (320,000) each employed a smaller number of S&E workers.
  • In 2010, about 19.5 million college graduates in the United States had a bachelor’s or higher level degree in an S&E field of study. Almost three-fourths (74%) of these college graduates (14.5 million) held their highest level of degree (bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctorate) in an S&E field. Overall, the most common fields of S&E highest degrees were social sciences (40%) and engineering (23%). Computer and mathematical sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences together accounted for slightly more than one-third (38%) of individuals with S&E highest degrees.
  • The application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread across the U.S. economy and not just limited to S&E occupations. The number of college-educated individuals reporting that their jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree level of technical expertise in one or more S&E fields (16.5 million) is significantly higher than the number in occupations with formal S&E titles (5.4 million).

The S&E workforce has grown steadily over time.

  • Between 1960 and 2011, the number of workers in S&E occupations grew at an average annual rate of 3.3%, greater than the 1.5% growth rate for the total workforce.
  • Data from more recent years indicate that trends in S&E employment compared favorably to overall employment trends during and after the 2007–09 economic downturn. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of workers employed in S&E occupations rose slightly, whereas the total workforce shrank.

S&E Workers in the Economy

Scientists and engineers work for all types of employers.

  • By far the largest employer of scientists and engineers (individuals with an S&E degree or employed in an S&E occupation) is the business sector (70%), followed by the education sector (19%) and the government sector (11%). Within the business sector, for-profit businesses employ the largest number of scientists and engineers.
  • Scientists and engineers with S&E doctorates are more evenly distributed between the business sector (46%) and the education sector (45%). Within the education sector, over 90% are found in 4-year academic institutions, including those in postdoctoral and other temporary positions.
  • Small firms are important employers of those with S&E highest degrees (individuals who attained their highest level of degree in an S&E field of study). Firms with fewer than 100 persons employ 37% of such individuals in the business sector.
  • Within the business sector, the industry with the largest number of workers in S&E occupations is the professional, scientific, and technical services industry.
  • Employment in S&E occupations is geographically concentrated in the United States. The 20 metropolitan areas with the largest proportion of the workforce employed in S&E occupations accounted for 18% of nationwide S&E employment, compared to 8% of all employment.

S&E Labor Market Conditions

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

  • Half of the workers in S&E occupations earned $78,270 or more in 2012, more than double the median earnings ($34,750) of the total U.S. workforce.
  • Employed college graduates with a highest degree in S&E earn more than those with non-S&E degrees. Moreover, within each broad degree field (S&E and non-S&E), those employed in S&E occupations earn more than those in non-S&E occupations.

Individuals 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 graduates and much lower than those for the overall labor force. In October 2010, an estimated 4.3% of scientists and engineers and 5.1% of all college-educated individuals in the labor force were unemployed. At the same time, the official unemployment rate for the entire U.S. labor force was 9.0%.
  • Unemployment rates for S&E doctorate holders are generally lower than for those at other degree levels.

Demographics of the S&E Workforce

The U.S. S&E labor force is aging. However, in 2010, a larger proportion of older scientists and engineers reported being in the labor force than in 1993.

  • The proportion of scientists and engineers in the U.S. labor force over age 50 increased from 20% in 1993 to 33% in 2010. The median age of such individuals was 44 years in 2010, compared to 41 years in 1993.
  • Between 1993 and 2010, increasing percentages of scientists and engineers in their 60s reported that they were still in the labor force. Whereas 54% of scientists and engineers between the ages of 60 and 69 were employed in 1993, the comparable percentage rose to 63% in 2010.

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

  • Despite accounting for half of the college-educated workforce, in 2010 women constituted 37% of employed individuals with a highest degree in an S&E field and 28% of employed individuals in S&E occupations.
  • From 1993 to 2010, growth occurred in both the proportion of workers with a highest degree in an S&E field who are women (increasing from 31% to 37%) and the proportion of women in S&E occupations (increasing from 23% to 28%).
  • Women employed in S&E occupations are concentrated in different occupational categories than are men, with relatively high proportions of women in the social sciences (58%) and life sciences (48%) and relatively low proportions in engineering (13%) and computer and mathematical sciences (25%).

Historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics, continue to display lower S&E participation rates relative to their presence in the U.S. population. Conversely, Asians and foreign-born individuals display higher S&E participation rates relative to their overall presence in the U.S. population.

  • Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians or Alaska Natives together make up 26% of the U.S. population age 21 and older but a much smaller proportion of the S&E workforce: 10% of workers in S&E occupations and 13% of S&E highest degree holders.
  • Asians work in S&E occupations at higher rates (19%) than their representation in the U.S. population age 21 and older (5%). Asians have a large presence in engineering and computer sciences occupations, particularly among computer software and hardware engineers, software developers, and postsecondary teachers in engineering.
  • About 70% of workers in S&E occupations are non-Hispanic whites, which is comparable to their overall representation in the U.S. population age 21 and older (68%).
  • Foreign-born individuals account for slightly more than one-fourth of all workers in S&E occupations, which is higher than their representation in the entire college-educated workforce (15%). Foreign-born workers employed in S&E occupations tend to have higher levels of education than their U.S. native-born counterparts.

A variety of indicators point to a decline in the immigration of scientists and engineers during the 2007–09 economic downturn. However, data since the downturn suggest that this decline may be temporary.

  • After several years of growth, the number of temporary work visas issued to high-skill workers fell during the 2007–09 economic downturn. It has rebounded since then, although data for 2012 indicate that the issuance of temporary work visas has not yet reached the recent highs seen in 2007 and 2008.
  • After rising for most of the decade 2000–09, the number of foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees declined in 2009 and 2010. It has risen slightly in 2011 but remains below the recent highs seen in 2007 and 2008.
  • Among foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate recipients with temporary visas at graduation, the proportion that remained in the United States 5 years after receiving their degrees rose during the first half of the decade of the 2000s, reaching 67% in 2005. The proportion declined during the economic downturn but rose to 66% in 2011.

Global S&E Labor Force

Worldwide, the number of workers engaged in research has been growing.

  • Among countries with large numbers of researchers—defined as workers engaged in the creation and development of new knowledge, products, and processes—growth has been most rapid since the mid-1990s in China and South Korea.
  • The United States and the European Union experienced steady growth but at a lower rate than in China or South Korea.
  • Japan and Russia were exceptions to the worldwide trend. Between 1995 and 2011, the number of researchers in Japan remained largely unchanged, and in Russia the number declined.