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U.S. S&E Labor Force Profile
- Section Overview
- How Large Is the U.S. S&E Workforce?
- S&E Workforce Growth
- Salary Changes as an Indicator of Labor Market Conditions
- Salaries Over a Person's Working Life
- How Are People With an S&E Education Employed?
- Metropolitan Areas
- Employment Sectors
- Educational Distribution of S&E Workers
- Women and Minorities in S&E
This section profiles the U.S. S&E labor force, providing specific information about its size, recent growth patterns, projected labor demand, and trends in sector of employment. It also looks at workers' use of their S&E training, educational background, and salaries.
The S&E labor force includes both individuals in S&E occupations and many others with S&E training who may use their knowledge in a variety of jobs. Employment in S&E occupations has grown rapidly over the past two decades and is currently projected to continue to grow faster than general employment through the next decade. Although most individuals with S&E degrees do not work in occupations with formal S&E titles, most of them, even at the bachelor's degree level, report doing work related to their degree even in mid- and late-career. The proportion of women and ethnic minorities in the S&E labor force continues to grow, but with the exception of Asians/Pacific Islanders, remains smaller than their proportion of the overall population.
Estimates of the size of the U.S. S&E workforce vary based on the criteria used to define scientist or engineer. Education, occupation, field of degree, and field of employment are all factors that may be considered. (See sidebar, "Who Is a Scientist or an Engineer?")
The size of the S&E workforce in 2003 varies between approximately 4 million and 15 million individuals, depending on the definition and perspective used (see table
In 2003, 15.7 million individuals had at least one degree in an S&E field. This broader definition of the S&E workforce may be most relevant to many of the ways science and technical knowledge is used in the United States. A slightly smaller number, 11.9 million, has an S&E degree as its highest degree.
If the labor force definition is limited to those in S&E occupations with at least a bachelor's degree, the 2003 NSF Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT) data estimated 4.9 million workers, whereas the U.S. Census Bureau's 2003 American Community Survey estimated 4.0 million. Occupation-based estimates not limited to college graduates include 5.0 million in November 2003 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics Survey and 5.6 million from the 2003 American Community Survey.
A third measure, based on self-reported need for S&E knowledge, is available from the 2003 SESTAT for workers with degrees from all fields of study. An estimated 12.9 million workers reported needing at least a bachelor's degree level of S&E knowledge—with 9.2 million reporting a need for knowledge of the natural sciences and engineering and 5.3 million a need for knowledge of the social sciences. That the need for S&E knowledge is more than double the number in formal S&E occupations suggests the pervasiveness of technical knowledge in the modern workplace.
Despite some limitations in measuring the S&E labor force, occupation classifications allow examination of growth in at least one measure of scientists and engineers over extended periods. According to data from the decennial censuses, the number of workers in S&E occupations grew to 4.0 million, at an average annual rate between 1950 and 2000 of 6.4%—compared with a 1.6% average annual rate for the whole workforce older than age 18. By a broader definition of the science and technology (S&T) occupations (including technicians and programmers) S&T occupations grew to 5.5 million at a 6.8% average annual rate (figure
The growth rate of S&E employment continued to be greater than for the full workforce in the 1990s (see figure
In all broad categories of S&E fields, employment in the occupations directly associated with the field has grown faster than new degree production (see chapter 2 for a fuller discussion of S&E degrees). Average annual growth rates of employment and degree production are shown in figure
Using data from the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) from 1993 to 2004 to look at employment in S&E occupations across all sectors and education levels creates a very similar view, albeit with some significant differences. The 3.1% average annual growth rate in all S&E employment is almost triple the rate for the general workforce. This is reflected in the growing proportion of total jobs in S&E occupations, which increased from 2.6% in 1983 to 3.9% in 2004. Also noteworthy are the decreases in employment in S&E occupations between 1991 and 1992 and between 2001 and 2002—evidence that S&E employment is not exempt from economic downturns (see figure
Projected Demand for S&E Workers
The most recent occupational projections from BLS, for 2002–12, forecast that employment in S&E occupations will increase about 70% faster than the overall growth rate for all occupations (figure
S&E occupations are projected to grow by 26% from 2002 to 2012, while employment in all occupations is projected to grow 15% over the same period (BLS 2004). This is a revision of BLS projections for 2000 to 2010 that projected a 47% increase in S&E employment (BLS 2001).
Although BLS labor force projections often do a reasonable job of forecasting employment in many occupations (see Fullerton, 2003), S&E occupations may be particularly difficult to forecast. Many spending decisions on research and development by corporations and governments are difficult or impossible to anticipate. In addition, R&D money increasingly crosses borders in search of the best place to have particular research performed. (The United States may be a net recipient of these R&D funds; see discussion in chapter 4). Finally, it may be difficult to anticipate new products and industries that may be created via the innovation processes that are most closely associated with scientists and engineers.
Approximately 78% of BLS's projected increase in S&E jobs is in computer-related occupations (see table
Overall engineering employment is forecasted by BLS to grow only about 7% over the decade. Within engineering occupations, industrial engineering is projected to have the biggest relative employment gains, increasing by 20%, followed by civil engineering and environmental engineering, each projected to increase by about 18%.
BLS also forecasts that job openings in S&E occupations over the 2002–12 period will be a slightly greater proportion of current employment than for all occupations: 43% versus 39% (see figure
Sometimes discussions of S&E labor markets use difficult-to-define words like "surplus" or "shortage" that imply a close matching between particular types of educational credentials and particular jobs. As discussed previously in this chapter, individuals with a particular S&E degree may use their training in occupations nominally associated with different S&E fields or in occupations not considered S&E. They may also work in various sectors of employment such as private industry, academia, government, or K–12 education. All of this makes any "simple" comparison of supply and demand estimates impossible.
One indicator of the level of labor market demand for a set of skills is the changes observed over time in the pay received by individuals with those skills, regardless of what occupations they may be in. The changes between 1993 and 2003 in real (inflation-adjusted) median salary for recent graduates in S&E and non-S&E fields are shown in figure
Among recent master's degree recipients, all fields, including non-S&E, showed increases in median real salaries between 1993 and 2003. Non-S&E master's degree recipients experienced a 52.7% increase in median real salary, surpassed only by master's degrees in computer and mathematical science (54.8% increase). Real median earnings for other recent S&E master's degree recipients grew by 47.9% in engineering, 42.9% in the life sciences, 32.1% in the social sciences, and 31.8% in the physical sciences. These high growth rates in earnings for recent master's degree recipients in all fields are indicative of the increasing returns to high skills throughout the U.S. economy during this period.
Among recent doctoral degree recipients, the increase in median real salary was greatest for those in the physical sciences (31.9%) and smallest was in the life sciences (0.3%). Recent non-S&E doctorate recipients increased real earnings by only 4.0%, the same rate as recent doctorates in social sciences. Real earnings for recent doctoral degree recipients increased by 19.3% in engineering and 18.6% in mathematical and computer sciences. In all fields except the physical sciences, earnings increased less in percentage terms than at the master's level. This may reflect the greater proportion of doctorate holders in academia and, particularly in the case of life sciences, in postdoc positions.
Evaluation of recent doctoral degree recipient salaries is made more difficult by the earnings differentials between academic and nonacademic employment, as well as the increasing prevalence of postdocs. As shown in figure
The median salary for recent non-S&E master's degree recipients was higher than for either those with non-S&E doctorates or non-S&E professional degrees (law, medicine, and other professional degrees).
Estimates of median salary at different points in a person's working life are shown in figure
Although the majority of S&E degree holders do not work in S&E occupations, this does not mean they do not use their S&E training. In 2003, of the 6.0 million individuals whose highest degree was in an S&E field and who did not work in S&E occupations, 66% indicated that they worked in a job either closely or somewhat related to the field of their highest S&E degree (table
One to four years after receiving their degrees, 96% of S&E doctoral degree holders say that they have jobs closely or somewhat related to the degrees they received compared with 91% of master's degree recipients and 73% of bachelor's degree recipients (figure
Employment in Non-S&E Occupations
About 6.0 million individuals whose highest degree is in S&E worked in non-S&E occupations in 2003. Of these, two-thirds said that their job was at least somewhat related to their degree (table
A two-decades-long view of unemployment trends in S&E occupations, regardless of education level, comes from the CPS data for 1983–2004. During this 22-year period, the unemployment rate for all individuals in S&E occupations ranged from a low of 1.4% in 1999 to a high of 4.6% in 2003. Overall, the S&E occupational unemployment rate was both lower and less volatile than either the rate for all U.S. workers (ranging from 3.9% to 9.9%) or for S&E technicians (ranging from 2.0% to 6.1%). During most of the period, computer programmers had a similar unemployment rate as those in S&E occupations, but greater volatility (ranging from 1.2% to 6.7%). The most recent recession in 2002–03 appears to have had a strong effect on S&E employment, with the differential between S&E and general unemployment falling to only 1.4 percentage points in 2003, compared with 6.9 percentage points in 1983 (figure
Similarly, labor market conditions from 1999 to 2003 had a greater effect on the portion of bachelor's degree holders who said they were working involuntarily out of the field (IOF) of their highest degree than on doctoral degree holders (figure
United States metropolitan areas are ranked in table
The private for-profit sector is the largest provider of employment for individuals with S&E degrees (figure
Discussions of the S&E workforce often focus on individuals who hold doctorate degrees. However, CPS data on the educational achievement of individuals working in S&E occupations outside academia in 2000 indicate that only 10% had doctorates (figure
Almost one-fourth of individuals working in S&E occupations had not earned a bachelor's degree. Although technical issues of occupational classification may inflate the estimate of the size of the non-baccalaureate S&E workforce, it is also true that many individuals who have not earned a bachelor's degree enter the labor force with marketable technical skills from technical or vocational school training (with or without earned associate's degrees), college courses, and on-the-job training. In information technology (IT), and to some extent in other occupations, employers frequently use certification exams not formal degrees to judge skills (see discussion in chapter 2).
From 1983 to 2004, the proportion of individuals in the S&E workforce without college degrees remained relatively constant, rising only slowly to 73% in 2004. Among individuals working in S&E technician occupations the proportion with college degrees also remained nearly constant, rising to only about 24% in 2004. The occupation of computer programmer, a non-S&E occupation of particular interest in discussions of the S&E labor force, increased its percentage of individuals with college degrees from 50% to 68% (figure
A cross-sectional profile of median 2003 salaries for S&E degree holders over the course of their career is shown in figure
Demographic factors for women and minorities (such as age and years in the workforce, field of S&E employment, and highest degree level achieved) influence employment patterns. Demographically, men differ from women, and minorities differ from non-minorities; thus, their employment patterns also are likely to differ. For example, because larger numbers of women and minorities entered S&E fields only recently, women and minority men generally are younger than non-Hispanic white males and have fewer years of experience. Age and stage in career in turn influence such employment-related factors as salary, position, tenure, and work activity. In addition, employment patterns vary by field (see sidebar, "Growth of Representation of Women, Minorities, and the Foreign Born in S&E Occupations."), and these differences influence S&E employment, unemployment, salaries, and work activities. Highest degree earned, yet another important influence, particularly affects primary work activity and salary.
Representation of Women in S&E
Women constituted more than one-fourth (26%) of the college-educated workforce in S&E occupations (and more than one-third, 37%, of those with S&E degrees) but close to half (46%) of the total U.S. workforce in 2003.
Age Distribution and Experience. Differences in age and related time spent in the workforce account for many of the differences in employment characteristics between men and women. On average, women in the S&E workforce are younger than men (figures
S&E Occupation. Representation of men and women also differs according to field of occupation. For example, in 2003, women constituted 52% of social scientists, compared with 29% of physical scientists and 11% of engineers (figure
Labor Force Participation, Employment, and Unemployment. Unemployment rates were somewhat higher for women in S&E occupations than for men in 2003: 3.7% of men and 4.2% of women were unemployed. By comparison, the unemployment rate in 1993 was 2.7% for men and 2.1% for women (table
Salaries. In 2003, females in S&E occupations earned a median annual salary of $53,000, about 24% less than the median annual salary earned by male scientists and engineers ($70,000). Several factors may contribute to these salary differentials. Women more often work in educational institutions, in social science occupations, and in non-managerial positions. In addition, precisely because of growth in the number of women entering S&E fields, they also tend to have fewer years of experience.
Within NSF's data on individuals with college degrees, increases in representation for women are actually associated with lower wage growth. Between 1993 and 2003, median annual salaries for females in S&E occupations increased by 34%, compared with an increase of 40% for male median salaries (table
Representation of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in S&E
With the exception of Asians/Pacific Islanders, racial and ethnic minorities represent only a small proportion of those employed in S&E occupations in the United States. Collectively, blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups (the latter includes American Indians/Alaska Natives) constituted 24% of the total U.S. population, 13% of college graduates, and 10% of the college educated in S&E occupations.
Although Asians/Pacific Islanders constitute only 5% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 7% of college graduates and 14% of those employed in S&E occupations in 2003. Although 82% of Asians/Pacific Islanders in S&E occupations were foreign born, native-born Asians/Pacific Islanders are also more likely than their numbers to be employed in S&E.
Age Distribution. As in the case of women, underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities are much younger than non-Hispanic whites in the same S&E occupations (figures
S&E Occupation. Asian/Pacific Islander, black, and American Indian/Alaska Native scientists and engineers tend to work in different fields than their white and Hispanic counterparts. Fewer Asians/Pacific Islanders work in social sciences than in other fields. In 1999, they constituted 4% of social scientists, but more than 11% of engineers and more than 13% of individuals working in mathematics and computer sciences. More black scientists and engineers work in social sciences and in computer sciences and mathematics than in other fields. In 1999, blacks constituted approximately 5% of social scientists, 4% of computer scientists and mathematicians, 3% of physical scientists and engineers, and 2% of life scientists. Other ethnic groups (which includes American Indians/Alaska Natives) work predominantly in social and life sciences, accounting for 0.4% of social and life scientists and 0.3% or less of scientists in other fields in 1999. Hispanics appear to have a more even representation across all fields, constituting approximately 2.5%–4.5% of scientists and engineers in each field.
Salaries. Salaries for individuals in S&E occupations vary among the different racial and ethnic groups. In 2003 whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders in S&E occupations earned similar median annual salaries of $67,000 and $70,000, respectively, compared with $60,000 for Hispanics and $58,000 for blacks (table
 Not all analyses of changes in earnings are able to control for level of skill. For example, data on average earnings within occupation overtime may not be a good indicator of labor market conditions if the average experience level were to fall for workers in a rapidly growing occupation.