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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 3:
U.S. S&E Labor Force Profile
Labor Market Conditions
for Recent S&E Graduates
Age and Retirement
Global S&E Labor Force
and the United States

Science and Engineering Labor Force

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The U.S. S&E labor market continues to grow, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total labor market. Although the most dramatic growth has occurred in the IT sector, other areas of S&E employment also have recorded strong growth over the past two decades.

In general, labor market conditions for individuals with S&E degrees improved during the 1990s. (These conditions have always been better than the conditions for college graduates as a whole.) However, engineering and computer science occupations have been unusually affected by the recent recession, causing the unemployment rate for individuals in S&E occupations to reach a 20-year high of 3.9 percent in 2002. Labor market conditions for new doctoral degree recipients have also been good, according to most conventional measures; for example, the vast majority of S&E doctorate holders are employed and doing work relevant to their training. However, these gains have come in the nonacademic sectors; that is, in nearly all fields, a smaller percentage of recent doctoral degree recipients obtained tenure-track positions.

The globalization of the S&E labor force continues to increase as the location of S&E employment becomes more internationally diverse and S&E workers become more internationally mobile. These trends reinforce each other as R&D spending and business investment crosses national borders in search of available talent, as talented people cross borders in search of interesting and lucrative work, and as employers recruit and move employees internationally. Although these trends appear most strongly in the high-profile international competition for IT workers, they affect every science and technology area.

The rate of growth of the S&E labor force may decline rapidly over the next decade due to the aging of individuals with S&E educations, as the number of individuals with S&E degrees reaching traditional retirement ages is expected to triple. If this slowdown does occur, the rapid growth in R&D employment and spending that the United States has experienced since World War II may not be sustainable.

The growth rate of the S&E labor force would also be significantly reduced if the United States becomes less successful in the increasing international competition for immigrant and temporary nonimmigrant scientists and engineers. Many countries are actively reducing barriers to high-skilled immigrants entering their labor markets at the same time that entry into the United States is becoming somewhat more difficult.

Slowing of the S&E labor force growth would be a fundamental change for the U.S. economy, possibly affecting both technological change and economic growth. Some researchers have raised concerns that other factors may even accentuate the trend (NSB 2003). Any sustained drop in S&E degree production would produce not only a slowing of labor force growth, but also a long-term decline in the S&E labor force.

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