Demand, Pay for STEM Skills Skyrocket

Many workers with STEM bachelor's out-earn Ph.D.'s in other fields.

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People with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees or certifications are in a prime position in the economy, according to a new workforce study released this morning.

Workers with associate's degrees in STEM fields out-earn 63 percent of people who have bachelor's degrees in other fields. Almost half of workers with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields out-earn workers with Ph.D.'s in other fields, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

That doesn't mean people with STEM degrees are necessarily working in those fields, says center Director Anthony Carnevale, the lead author of the report. He says technical skills have "become the common currency of the labor market," much the same way a liberal arts education was seen as a basic requirement for high-paying jobs in past years.

Occupations in STEM jobs will continue to grow—the center estimates that careers in the field will make up about 5 percent of all jobs by 2018, but demand for STEM skills in other fields has skyrocketed.

Carnevale says STEM competency has become a "foundational skill" for those looking to go into upper management. This causes a divergence in STEM talent—people with STEM degrees go into lucrative careers in finance or management, Carnevale says. For every 100 students who graduates with a bachelor's degree, 19 graduate with a degree in STEM, but only eight are working in a STEM occupation 10 years down the line, according to the report.

This isn't a problem for the workers, according to Carnevale, but it can be a problem for corporations. Workers may leave STEM occupations for higher-paying jobs, but he also says being a lab scientist doesn't "satisfy social or entrepreneurial interests" for many.

"It's not a problem. The economy wants this, it's good for the individual," he says. "But the economy wants more [STEM-qualified workers]. From the point of view of employers, they feel frustrated, but the reason they can't keep people is themselves. They keep stealing people from each other."

With job switches come salary bumps. Regardless of occupation, people with a bachelor's degree in a STEM major make roughly $500,000 more over their lifetimes than non-STEM majors. Over the past 30 years, salaries in STEM-related jobs have jumped faster than those in any other occupation other than healthcare professionals and managerial occupations. STEM wages jumped 31 percent over the past 30 years, compared with 23 percent for all non-STEM occupations.

Carnevale says this data contradicts the assertion some make that the United States has enough STEM graduates, an argument made by Richard Freeman in a 2008 report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Freeman wrote that believers in the STEM shortage favor "guest worker programs to keep a sizable flow of less-skilled but legal immigrants coming to the country."

He says that "increased supplies of skilled labor in low-wage countries will squeeze highly skilled as well as less-skilled U.S. workers," and writes that there's a problem with "attracting homegrown American talent to science and engineering in the face of increasing supplies of highly qualified students and workers from lower-wage countries."

[Learn why companies want more foreign STEM workers.]

Not so, says Carnevale. He says Freeman and others see that there are two STEM graduates for every new STEM job opening. But the migration of STEM talent to other fields means there's a shortage of workers wanting to take those jobs, and demand pushes the wages up.

"It's the best of all possible worlds. The institutions are chasing the individuals, so the individuals have the upper hand. That's what we want," he says. "It's not a crisis, it's a market, which is to say that this skill is scarce, and employers are chasing the skill. The demand for the skill is going up, the wages are going up."

The report asserts that the United States needs more middle-tier high school students to study STEM—whether they get a bachelor's degree or an associate's degree. If only the best students continue to go into STEM, there will continue to be the divergence, he says. "The rest of our economy needs more of these people," he says. "In the end, you can track this back to high school math. We're very good at the high end, but math is the place most students fail … that's the biggest challenge of them all. How do we get young people to learn math?"

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