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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
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Figure 3-29

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Figure 3-30

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Figure 3-31

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Figure 3-32

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Figure 3-33

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Figure 3-34

Science and Engineering Labor Force

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Global S&E Labor Force and the United States

Section Overview
Counts of the Global S&E Labor Force
Migration to the United States

"There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table" (Anton Chekhov, 1860-1904).

Science is a global enterprise. The common laws of nature cross political boundaries, and the international movement of people and knowledge made science global long before "globalization" became a label for the increasing interconnections among the world's economies. The United States (and other countries as well) gains from new knowledge discovered abroad and from increases in foreign economic development.[17] U.S. industry also increasingly relies on R&D performed abroad. The nation's international economic competitiveness, however, depends upon the U.S. labor force's innovation and productivity.

Other chapters provide indirect indicators on the global labor force. Production of new scientists and engineers through university degree programs is reported in chapter 2. Indicators of R&D performed by the global S&E labor force are provided in chapter 4 (R&D expenditures and alliances), chapter 5 (publication output and international collaborations), and chapter 6 (patenting activity).

Section Overview top of page

Although the number of researchers employed in the United States has continued to grow faster than the growth of the general workforce, this is still a third less than the growth rate for researchers across all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Foreign-born scientists in the United States are more than a quarter, and possibly more than a third of the S&E doctorate labor force, and are even more prevalent in many physical science, engineering, and computer fields. Along with the increases in graduate education for domestic and foreign students elsewhere in the world (as discussed in chapter 2), there has been an increase in efforts by national governments and private industry to recruit the best talent from wherever it comes. As a result, the United States is becoming less dominant as a destination for migrating scientists and engineers.

Counts of the Global S&E Labor Force top of page

Few direct measures of the global S&E labor force exist. Reports on the number of researchers in OECD member countries do constitute one source of data. From 1993 to 1997, the number of researchers[18] reported in OECD countries increased by 23.0 percent (a 5.3 percent average annual rate of increase) from approximately 2.46 million to 3.03 million (figure 3-29 figure). During this same period, comparable U.S. estimates increased 11.8 percent (a 3.7 percent average annual rate of increase) from approximately 965,000 to 1.11 million. Although researchers in the United States, Japan, and the European Union made up 85.7 percent of the OECD total in 1997, the greatest growth in number of researchers came from other OECD countries, with a 120 percent increase from 196,000 to 433,000. (These numbers represent OECD staff estimates of total researchers in all member countries; the rapid growth of "other OECD" may represent in part improvements in reporting.)

Of course, non-OECD countries also have scientists and engineers. Figure 3-30 figure shows an estimate (from disparate data sources) of the global distribution of tertiary education graduates (roughly equivalent in U.S. terms to individuals who have earned at least technical school or associate's degrees, and also including all degrees up to doctorate) during the 1990s.[19] About one-fifth of the estimated 240 million tertiary graduates in the labor force were in the United States. However, of the 10 countries with the largest number of tertiary graduates, 3 do not belong to OECD: the Russian Federation, China, and India.

Migration to the United States top of page

Migration of skilled S&E workers across borders is increasingly seen as a major determinant of the quality and flexibility of the labor force in most industrial countries. The knowledge of scientists and engineers can be transferred across national borders more easily than other skills. Additionally, cutting-edge research and technology inevitably create unique sets of skills and knowledge that can be transferred through the physical movement of people. The United States has benefited, and continues to benefit, from this international flow of knowledge and personnel. However, competition for skilled labor continues to increase. An NSB taskforce noted "[g]lobal competition for S&E talent is intensifying, such that the United States may not be able to rely on the international S&E labor market to fill unmet skill needs" (NSB 2003). (See sidebar, "High-Skill Migration to Japan.")

In April 1999, SESTAT figures indicated that at least 27 percent of S&E doctorate holders in the United States were foreign born (table 3-22 text table), along with 20 percent of those with S&E master's degrees and 10 percent of S&E bachelor's degree holders. Technical reasons make it difficult to estimate the extent of participation of foreign-born scientists and engineers in the U.S. S&E workforce in the 1990s.[20] Minimum estimates based on a sample drawn originally from the 1990 Census have turned out to be considerably low, reflecting the difficulty in measuring the dimensions of high-skilled entry into the U.S. during the 1990s.

An indication of the scope of the undercounting of foreign-born scientists and engineers comes from a comparison of SESTAT occupational data with approximately comparable data from the 2000 Census. Using the 5 percent Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), it is possible to compare the proportion of foreign-born individuals among those with S&E occupations other than postsecondary teacher[21] (table 3-23 text table). According to the 1999 SESTAT, 15.0 percent of college graduates in S&E occupations are foreign born, compared with the 22.4 percent recorded by the 2000 Census. A particularly noteworthy difference appears in the proportion of foreign-born individuals among those with doctorates; this proportion increases from 28.7 percent in SESTAT to 37.6 percent in the 2000 Census.

Among college-educated workers with occupations in the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematical and computer sciences, estimates from the 2000 Census indicate that approximately one-fourth of individuals, across all degree levels, were foreign born (table 3-24 text table). At the doctorate level, 51.3 percent of individuals in engineering occupations, and just under 45 percent in the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematical and computer sciences, were foreign born. The lowest percentage of foreign-born individuals is found in social science occupations, where just over 10 percent of workers are foreign born (regardless of degree level).

The large increases shown by 2000 Census data may in part reflect recent arrivals in the United States, because 42.5 percent of all college-educated foreign-born individuals in S&E occupations reported arriving in the United States after 1990. Among foreign-born doctorate holders in S&E occupations, 62.4 percent reported arriving in the United States after 1990. The NSF/SRS estimates in table 3-23 text table include these post-1990 arrivals only if their degrees are from a U.S. institution.[22]

Origins of S&E Immigrants

Immigrant scientists and engineers come from a broad range of countries. Figure 3-32 figure shows countries contributing more than 30,000 individuals to the 1.5 million S&E degree holders in the United States, by S&E doctorate and by highest degree achieved in S&E. Although no one source country dominates, among individuals whose highest degree achieved is in S&E, 14 percent came from India, 10 percent came from China, and 5 percent each came from the following countries: Germany, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and Canada. By region, 57 percent came from Asia (including the Western Asia sections of the Middle East), 24 percent came from Europe, 13 percent came from Central and South America, 6 percent came from Canada and Oceania, and 4 percent came from Africa.

Fiscal year 2001 data from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS)[23] counts of permanent visas issued to immigrants in S&E show a large increase in permanent visas for S&E occupations to 33,917, dominated by growth in engineering and mathematical/computer sciences (figure 3-33 figure). This reflects both a general increase in permanent visas issued due to efforts to eliminate backlogs (1,064,318 total permanent visas were issued in 2001), and the first opportunity for many workers on H-1b temporary work visas to adjust to permanent status. Adjustments from temporary work visas (which includes other cases besides H-1b) rose from 44,598 in FY 2000 to 85,227 in FY 2001. It is worth noting that FY 2001 ended on September 30, 2001, and thus was mostly unaffected by any changes in administrative practices or individual behaviors resulting from the events of September 11, 2001. (See sidebar, "Has September 11th Affected the U.S. Scientific Labor Force?")

Temporary Work Visas

In recent years, policy discussion has focused on the use of various forms of temporary work visas by foreign-born scientists. Many newspaper and magazine stories have been written about the H-1b visa program, which provides visas for up to 6 years for individuals to work in occupations requiring at least a bachelor's degree (or to work as fashion models). Although a common misperception exists that only information technology (IT) workers may use these visas, a wide variety of skilled workers actually use H-1b visas.

Exact occupational information on H-1b visas issued is not available. Some occupational data on H-1b admissions, which count individuals who re-enter the United States multiple times, does exist. This information can provide an approximate guide to the occupational distribution of individuals on H-1b visas. Individuals working in computer-related positions accounted for more than half (57.8 percent) of H-1b admissions, and architecture and engineering constituted another 12.2 percent. Another 9.0 percent labeled scientific and technical occupations and 8.7 percent in categories such as education and medicine also may include many individuals with S&E backgrounds (table 3-26 text table).

An important change to the H-1b visa program took effect on October 1, 2003: the annual ceiling on admissions fell from 195,000 to 65,000 due to the expiration of that had allowed the additional visas. Although and academic research institutions are exempt ceiling, this change is likely to constrain the use of scientists and engineers by private industry for any located in the United States.

Scientists and engineers may also receive temporary work through intracompany transfer visas (L-1 visas), high-worker visas under the North American Free Trade (TN-1 visas, a program currently primarily for will grant full access for Mexican professionals by 2004), work visas for individuals with outstanding abilities (O-1 visas), and several smaller programs. In addition, there are temporary visas used by researchers who may also be students (F-1 and J-1 visas) or postdocs, and by visiting scientists (mostly J-1 visas but often H-1b visas or other categories). Counts of visas issued for each of these categories are shown in table 3-27 text table. The annual quota of H-1b visas is controlled through issuance of visas to workers rather than through applications from companies.

Stay Rates for U.S. Doctoral Degree Recipients With Temporary Visas

How many foreign students who receive S&E doctorates from U.S. schools remain in the United States? According to a report by Michael Finn (2003) of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 56 percent of 1996 U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas remained in the United States in 2001. The number of foreign students staying after obtaining their doctorates implies that approximately 3,500 foreign students remain from each annual cohort of new S&E doctorates in all fields. Stay rates differ by field of degree, ranging from only 26 percent in economics to 70 percent in computer and electrical engineering (table 3-28 text table).

Within each discipline, the stay rate remained mostly stable for the 1996 graduation cohort between 1997 and 2001. Quite possibly, however, some of this stability came from individuals in this cohort who re-entered the United States and thus replaced others in the same graduation cohort who left.


[17]  A discussion of this is contained in Regets 2001.

[18]  The OECD defines researchers as "professionals engaged in conception and creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods, and systems."

[19]  The primary source is World Bank data on size and percentage of the with a tertiary education, supplemented with data from various data agencies. However, these data come from different years for different countries and result from estimates taken from very different national collection systems. Consequently, these data are not suitable for making comparisons between countries. In addition, data were not available countries representing about 10 percent of the global population.

[20]  Because the NSF's demographic data collection system cannot refresh of individuals with S&E degrees from foreign institutions (as op-foreign-born individuals with a new U.S. degree, who are sampled) once per decade, counts of foreign-born scientists and engineers be underestimates. The 1999 estimate includes foreign-degreed scientists and engineers only to the extent that they were in the United States in April 1990. In 1993, 34.1 percent of foreign-born S&E doctorate recipients and 49.1 percent of foreign-born S&E bachelor's recipients had acquired their degrees from foreign schools (NSF/SRS 1999c).

[21]  The 2000 Census occupation codes do not allow categorization of postsecondary teachers by field.

[22]  It is also likely that noncitizens with U.S. degrees would not be part of NSF/SRS estimates if they reentered the United States during the 1990s after an extended period abroad.

[23]  The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is one of the successor agencies to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was eliminated in early 2003.

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