A new study argues that only half of our so-called STEM jobs require a college degree.

Science and technology skills are seen as vital to U.S. innovation and competitiveness by technologists, business leaders, and policy-makers on both sides of the aisle. A growing chorus contends that America faces a shortage of so-called STEM skills and jobs, which span science, technology, engineering, and math, and there's long been rising concern that the U.S. needs to turn out more grads in these critical fields.

A Brookings Institution report released today takes a remarkably fresh look at the role of STEM jobs in the U.S. economy. Authored by economist Jonathan Rothwell, the report's findings shed new light on the extent and number of STEM jobs, their geographic clustering and distribution, and effects on innovation and economic growth.

The study uses data on underlying skills to estimate the number of jobs that draw on STEM-related knowledge. This is a big improvement over other studies that either count the number of people with STEM degrees or enumerate those working in directly STEM-related industries or occupations. The data come from the U.S. Department of Labor's O*NET database of the actual skills used in more than 700 jobs across the U.S. economy. The Brookings study identifies six key STEM-related knowledge domains: mathematics, engineering and technology, computers and electronics, biology, chemistry, and physics. 

Roughly one in five, or 26 million, American jobs require a high level of knowledge in one or more of these core STEM fields, according to the study.

For all the talk about the shortage of STEM grads, the study finds that only half of STEM jobs require a college degree — experience and on-the-job training are sufficient for the rest. More than 10 percent of STEM jobs are in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. And fully half of them are in the manufacturing, health care, or construction industries.

STEM skills are highly rewarded, no matter what field or what level. STEM workers who have not completed college average $53,000, which is 10 percent higher than other non-degreed jobs.
The map below, from the report, charts distribution of STEM jobs across the 100 largest U.S. metros.

The table below shows the 10 metros with the highest and lowest demand for STEM knowledge. San Jose tops the list followed by Washington, D.C., while Las Vegas ranks lowest.

Many of the top-ranked STEM metros like San Jose, D.C., Seattle, Boston, Madison, and San Diego are leading centers of high-tech companies. Houston is a major energy center and both it and Palm Bay-Melbourne, Florida, have major clusters of space-related industries. The lowest-ranked metros are a mix of older industrial regions and lower-skill service-based economies like Las Vegas and Miami.

While the most highly-skilled STEM jobs are geographically clustered and spiky, the study finds those requiring less than a college education to be quite a bit more widespread.
Among the largest 100 metropolitan areas, the share of all STEM jobs available to workers without a bachelor's degree ranges from 7 percent in Las Vegas to 13 percent in Baton Rouge. This narrower band suggests that these STEM jobs often scale with population. Every city and large town needs mechanics and nurses. Meanwhile, scientists, engineers, and computer workers are more export-oriented and clustered.
STEM jobs contribute substantially to metro economies, according to the study: "Job growth, employment rates, patenting, wages, and exports are all higher in more STEM-based economies." This is true not just for highly-skilled STEM jobs but of those that do not require college degrees, which boost innovation "one-fourth to one-half as much as bachelor's degree STEM workers, holding other factors constant." What's more, these less skilled STEM jobs appear to mitigate against income inequality. The study points out that metros with larger concentrations of these less-skilled STEM jobs tend to have lower levels of such inequality.
According to the report, the shift to STEM jobs provides a new and potentially better way of understanding and of coping with the splitting of the U.S. job market into high and low-skill jobs:
Since 1980, the U.S. economy has become more polarized as jobs paying very high and very low wages have replaced jobs paying moderate wages. This trend—job polarization, as some have called it—has just recently been documented and is still being understood and debated. Some have interpreted the trend to imply that workers without a college degree have little hope of making middle-class wages; others suggest that unions need to be strengthened to stem the erosion of blue-collar jobs and wages. But there is another possibility. Not all workers need formal college-level skills, but they do need to master a specific body of knowledge. Entry-level occupations in factories no longer pay high wages, but occupations requiring education, experience, or training in STEM fields do, even for those requiring less than four years of postsecondary education.
Based on this the report concludes that:
The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to a STEM career has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways through community colleges and even technical high schools. This neglect is all the more nonsensical given that roughly half of students who earn four-year STEM degrees start their education at community colleges. While the federal government should strengthen its support of these efforts, the primary responsibility for funding and administrative support will fall to the state and local governments who benefit the most directly from a STEM-knowledgeable workforce.


About the Author

Richard Florida
Richard Florida

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at New York University.

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Poverty Just Over the Hills From Silicon Valley

    The South Coast, a 30-mile drive from Palo Alto, is facing an affordable-housing shortage that is jeopardizing its agricultural heritage.

  2. Life

    Why a City Block Can Be One of the Loneliest Places on Earth

    Feelings of isolation are common in cities. Let’s take a look at how the built environment plays into that.

  3. Design

    The Military Declares War on Sprawl

    The Pentagon thinks better designed, more walkable bases can help curb obesity and improve troops’ fitness.

  4. Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari

    The Neighborhood Inside a Building

    D.C.’s massive Woodner apartment building has lived many lives—from fancy hotel to one of the last bastions of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood. Now, it’s on the brink of another change.

  5. Infrastructure

    Vienna Makes Peace With Its Trash

    The famously clean Austrian city boasts one of the world’s most innovative waste processing systems.