Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force


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 all S&E occupations to reach a 20-year high of 4.6% in 2003 before dropping to 3.0% in 2004. Labor market conditions for new doctoral degree recipients have been good according to most conventional measures; for example, the vast majority of S&E doctorate degree holders are employed and doing work relevant to their training. However, these gains have come in the nonacademic sectors. In nearly all fields, the proportion of doctoral recipients that obtain tenure-track academic positions, long a minority, has continued to decline. 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 cross 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 strong 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 because of 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 occurs, 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.

National Science Board.