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Unemployment Rate of U.S. Scientists and Engineers Drops to Record Low 2.5% in 2006

NSF 08-305 (revised) | April 2008 | PDF format PDF  

by Nirmala Kannankutty[1]

The overall unemployment rate of scientists and engineers in the United States dropped from 3.2% in 2003 to 2.5% in 2006 (figure 1), according to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT).[2] This is the lowest unemployment rate measured by SESTAT since the early 1990s. It continues a trend of lower unemployment rates for scientists and engineers compared with unemployment rates in the rest of the U.S. economy.[3] Comparable unemployment rates for the entire U.S. labor force in 2003 and 2006 were 6.0% and 4.7%, respectively.[4] (See "Data Comments and Availability" for the definition of scientists and engineers and other variables and for notes on SESTAT.)

FIGURE 1. Unemployment rates of scientists and engineers by highest degree attained: 2003 and 2006.

  Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file

The total number of scientists and engineers in the United States grew by almost 1 million between 2003 and 2006 (table 1). The number of individuals working in science and engineering (S&E) occupations grew by 4.3%, whereas the number working in S&E-related occupations remained about the same. The number of scientists and engineers working in non-S&E occupations grew by 10%. This InfoBrief examines the changes in the unemployment rates between 2003 and 2006 in the S&E labor force and provides a general profile of scientists and engineers in 2006.

TABLE 1. U.S. scientists and engineers by labor force status: 2003 and 2006.

  Table 1 Source Data: Excel file

Changes in Unemployment Rates

Unemployment rates dropped for most S&E occupations and for individuals at all degree levels (level in this report is highest degree attained). Unemployment rates, and the amount of change in those rates from 2003 to 2006, varied by occupation (table 2). All major S&E occupation groups showed declines in unemployment rates except social scientists.[5] The change for social scientists is not statistically significant, but there was a 2.6 percentage point increase among economists and a 4.0 percentage point increase among political scientists—the greatest increase in unemployment rate among all reported S&E occupations.[6]

TABLE 2. Unemployment rate of scientists and engineers in the United States, by occupation: 2003 and 2006.

  Table 2 Source Data: Excel file

Unemployment rates dropped for all degree levels (figure 1). Together, doctorate and professional degree holders had the lowest unemployment rate in 2006, at 1.6%. Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree holders in all major S&E, S&E-related, and non-S&E fields had lower unemployment rates in 2006 than in 2003, except individuals whose highest degree was a bachelor's in a non-S&E field (table 3).

TABLE 3. Unemployment rate of scientists and engineers in the United States, by level and field of highest degree: 2003 and 2006.

  Table 3 Source Data: Excel file

The percentage of scientists and engineers not in the labor force remained about the same between 2003 and 2006 (table 1), although the S&E labor force expanded by almost 800,000 individuals. These general trends across the entire S&E labor force indicate a stronger labor market for scientists and engineers in 2006 than in 2003.

Demographic Profile of Scientists and Engineers in 2006

Scientists and engineers in the United States totaled 22.6 million in 2006 (table 4), almost half of them women (45%). Close to half of all bachelor's and master's degree holders were women, and just under one-third of all doctorate and professional degree holders were women. Some 5.7% of the male scientists and engineers held doctorates, whereas 3.0% of female scientists and engineers held such degrees.

TABLE 4. Demographic characteristics of scientists and engineers in the United States, by sex: 2006.

  Table 4 Source Data: Excel file

Female scientists and engineers were younger and more likely to be nonwhite than were male scientists and engineers. Just over 40% of women were younger than 40 compared with just over 30% of men. Additionally, among those under 30, women outnumber men. Among women, 25% were nonwhite or multiracial, compared with just over 21% of men. The vast majority of scientists and engineers in the United States were U.S. citizens (95%), with permanent residents (3.7%) and temporary residents (1.3%) constituting the remainder.[7] A higher proportion of men (5.7%) than women (4.2%) were not U.S. citizens.

Most scientists and engineers were married or lived in a marriage-like relationship. However, men were more likely to report being in these categories (79.5%) than were women (69.8%). Women (17.9%) were also more likely than men (13.6%) to report that they had never been married. Similar percentages of men and women reported having children in the home (49.0% of women and 48.0% of men).

Employment Profile of Scientists and Engineers in 2006

Of the 18.9 million employed scientists and engineers in the United States, some 5.0 million worked in S&E occupations, 5.2 million worked in S&E-related occupations, and 8.7 million worked in non-S&E-related occupations (table 5). The greater proportion of scientists and engineers working in S&E-related or non-S&E occupations than in S&E occupations is not a new characteristic, nor is it surprising. S&E occupations are a narrowly defined set of occupations that cover core scientific and engineering work in the United States. However, there are many S&E-related and non-S&E occupations in which individuals with S&E or S&E-related degrees may work. For example, 3.6 million individuals worked in health-related occupations (e.g., physicians, nurses, technicians, and technologists in health fields), where scientific knowledge and training is crucial to the work being done. Similarly, S&E-related occupations include such jobs as S&E managers (individuals who manage the S&E enterprise in technical organizations), precollege S&E teachers (secondary math and science teachers), technicians and technologists (e.g., computer programmers, engineering technicians), architects, and actuaries. Many S&E-educated individuals also go on to earn higher degrees in professional fields, such as law, and then move into non-S&E occupations.

TABLE 5. Profile of employed scientists and engineers in the United States by employment sector and occupation group: 2006.

  Table 5 Source Data: Excel file

The business/industry sector employed the largest share of scientists and engineers (69.4%), followed by educational institutions (18.8%) and government (11.8%). Among those with S&E occupations, biological/agricultural/other life scientists and social scientists were the least likely to work in industry (37.3% and 39.6, respectively) and the most likely to work in educational institutions or government (62.7% and 60.4%, respectively). Engineers were the least likely to work in educational institutions—5.6% of engineers worked in this setting.

Salaries of scientists and engineers vary widely by degree attainment, occupation, and employment sector, but the data show some general trends. Individuals with higher degree levels earned higher median salaries. Those with professional degrees, such as medicine or law, earned the highest median salaries ($120,000), followed by those with doctorates ($79,000), master's degrees ($64,000), and bachelor's degrees ($53,000). Among the business/industry, government, and education sectors, salaries were lowest in the education sector. Individuals working in S&E occupations earned higher median salaries ($72,000) than those working in S&E-related ($60,000) or non-S&E occupations ($50,000).

The difference in median salary from highest to lowest degree level was smaller for those working in S&E occupations ($9,000) than it was for those working in S&E-related ($70,000) or non-S&E occupations ($45,000). Within S&E occupations, the greatest difference was among those working as biological/agricultural/other scientists, where the bachelor's level median salary was $45,000 and the professional level median salary was $110,000. This is driven by the relatively higher salaries earned by those with doctorates and professional degrees in this broad occupation. Engineers reported the highest median salaries among all the major S&E occupations at each degree level except the professional degree.

Data Comments and Availability

Data presented here are from the 2003 and 2006 Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), which comprises three large demographic and workforce surveys of individuals conducted by NSF: the National Survey of College Graduates, the National Survey of Recent College Graduates, and the Survey of Doctorate Recipients. The 2006 surveys included 105,064 individuals representing a population of about 22 million scientists and engineers, including people trained in S&E or S&E-related fields or working in S&E or S&E-related occupations. The 2003 SESTAT surveys had a reference date of 1 October 2003; the 2006 SESTAT surveys had a reference date of 1 April 2006. All demographic, employment, and education data on scientists and engineers represent the status of these individuals at the respective survey reference dates.

Scientists and engineers refers to all persons who have ever received a bachelor's degree or higher in an S&E or S&E-related field, plus persons holding a non-S&E bachelor's or higher degree who were employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation in 2003. Unemployment rate is defined as U/U+E, where U = unemployed (the total number of individuals not working, but who have looked for a job in the four weeks preceding the survey reference date), and E = employed (the total number of individuals who are working as of the survey reference date). Labor force is defined as U+E. Occupational unemployment rates are calculated using the last job of those currently unemployed for classification purposes. Further information on the SESTAT system can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sestat/. The full set of detailed tables from the SESTAT integrated database will be available in the forthcoming report Characteristics of Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 2006, at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/us-workforce/.

For further information, contact Nirmala Kannankutty.


[1] Nirmala Kannankutty, Human Resources Statistics Program, Division of Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965, Arlington VA 22230 (nkannank@nsf.gov; 703-292-7797).

[2] All differences stated in this InfoBrief are significant at the 95% level unless otherwise noted.

[3] National Science Board. 2008. Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. Two volumes, NSB 08-01, NSB 08-01A. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/.

[4] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics national unemployment rate page at http://data.bls.gov/PDQ/servlet/SurveyOutputServlet?data_tool=latest_numbers&series_id=LNS14000000. Accessed February 2008.

[5] The major science and engineering occupation groups are biological/agricultural/other life scientists, computer/mathematical scientists, physical scientists, social scientists, and engineers.

[6] Although social scientists showed an increase in unemployment rate, individuals whose highest degree is in the social sciences did not. This is because a large number of individuals with social sciences degrees work in non-social science occupations.

[7] Recent immigrants directly entering the United States without going through the U.S. postsecondary education system are generally not covered in the SESTAT surveys, so there is some undercoverage of these individuals in the data.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics
Unemployment Rate of U.S. Scientists and Engineers Drops to Record Low 2.5% in 2006
Arlington, VA (NSF 08-305, revised) [April 2008]

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