Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force


The science and engineering workforce in the United States has grown rapidly, both over the last half century and the last decade.

  • From 1950 to 2000, employment in S&E occupations grew from fewer than 200,000 to more than 4 million workers, an average annual growth rate of 6.4%.
  • Between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, S&E occupations continued to grow at an average annual rate of 3.6%, more than triple the rate of growth of other occupations.
  • Between 1980 and 2000, the total number of S&E degrees earned grew at an average annual rate of 1.5%, which was faster than labor force growth, but less than the 4.2% growth of S&E occupations. S&E bachelor's degrees grew at a 1.4% average annual rate, and S&E doctorates at 1.9%.

The S&E labor force does not include just those in S&E occupations. S&E skills are needed and used in a wide variety of jobs.

  • Approximately 12.9 million workers say they need at least a bachelor's degree level of knowledge in S&E fields in their jobs. However, only 4.9 million were in occupations formally defined as S&E.
  • Twelve million workers have an S&E degree as their highest degree and 15.7 million have at least one degree in an S&E field.
  • Sixty-six percent of S&E degree holders in non-S&E occupations say their job is related to their degree, including many in management and marketing occupations.

S&E occupations have generally had low unemployment, but were unusually affected by the most recent recession.

  • Unemployment in S&E occupations reached 4.6% in 2003, the highest level in the 22 years for which it has been calculated.
  • The difference between the S&E unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for all workers fell to just 1.4 percentage points in 2003, compared with 6.9 percentage points in 1983.

Increases in median real salary for recent S&E graduates between 1993 and 2003 indicate relatively high demand for S&E skills during the past decade.

  • The median real salary for recent S&E bachelor's degree recipients increased more than that of recipients of non-S&E bachelor's degrees, in all broad S&E fields.
  • The largest increases for recent bachelor's degree recipients were in engineering (34.1%), computer and mathematical sciences (28.0%), and life sciences (24.5%). Smaller increases were found for recent bachelor's degree recipients in social sciences (15.8%), physical sciences (9.5%), and non-S&E fields (7.7%).
  • For all broad S&E fields, median real salaries grew faster over the decade for master's degree recipients than for bachelor's in the same field. This ranged from a 31.8% increase in median real earnings for recipients of physical science master's degrees to a 54.8% increase for recipients of master's degrees in computer and mathematical sciences. At the master's level, however, non-S&E degrees also enjoy large increases in real median salary, growing by 52.7%.
  • Median salary increased by only 0.3% for recent doctoral degree recipients in life sciences over the past 10 years. This reflects in part the increased participation in postdoc positions, which provide further training but traditionally pay low salaries.

Retirements from the S&E labor force are likely to become more significant over the next decade.

  • Twenty-nine percent of all S&E degree holders in the labor force are age 50 or over. Among S&E doctorate holders in the labor force, 44% are age 50 or over.
  • By age 62, half of S&E bachelor's degree holders had left full-time employment. Doctorate degree holders work slightly longer, with half leaving full-time employment by age 66.

The importance of foreign-born scientists and engineers to the S&E enterprise in the United States continues to grow.

  • Twenty-five percent of all college-educated workers in S&E occupations in 2003 were foreign born.
  • Forty percent of doctorate degree holders in S&E occupations in 2003 were foreign born.
  • Among all doctorate holders resident in the United States in 2003, a majority in computer science (57%), electrical engineering (57%), civil engineering (54%), and mechanical engineering (52%) were foreign born.

The proportions of women, blacks, and Hispanics in S&E occupations have continued to grow over time, but are still less than their proportions of the population.

  • Women were 12% of those in S&E occupations in 1980 and 25% in 2000. However, the growth in representation between 1990 and 2000 was only 3 percentage points.
  • The representation of blacks in S&E occupations increased from 2.6% in 1980 to 6.9% in 2000. The representation of Hispanics increased from 2.0% to 3.2%. However, for Hispanics, this is proportionally less than their increase in the population.
National Science Board.