Knowledge and the S&E Workforce

The progressive shift toward more knowledge-intensive economies around the world is dependent upon the availability and continued inflow of individuals with postsecondary training to the workforce. The expansion of higher education systems in many countries that started in the 1970s and continues today has enabled this shift to occur. Such broadening of higher education availability and access in many cases entailed greater relative emphasis than in the United States on education and training in engineering, natural sciences, and mathematics.

Demographic structures, stable or shrinking populations, expanding opportunities in other fields, and declining interest in mathematics and science among the young are viewed by governments of many mature industrial countries as a potential threat to the sustained competitiveness of their economies. The topic has assumed increasing urgency in meetings of ministers of OECD member countries.

Growing educational and technical sophistication mark international workforces and reduce traditional U.S. advantage.

Reliable, internationally comparable data on S&E labor force growth are unavailable. However, the number of individuals 15 years and older with a tertiary education, broadly comparable to at least a U.S. technical school or associate's degree, can serve as a proxy measure for the expansion of highly educated populations. A two-decade snapshot shows very rapid growth in overall numbers and considerable shifts in the geographical location of these individuals (figure O-34figure.).

From 1980 to 2000 (the latest available estimate), the number of individuals with a tertiary education rose from 73 million to 194 million, a 165% increase. The U.S. share of these degree holders declined from 31% to 27%.

Japan's shrinking share of the tertiary educated (from 10% to just above 6%) notwithstanding, the combined total of five other Asian nations, China, India, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, rose from 14% in 1980 to 34% in 2000, an increase from 10 million to 66 million. The 56 million people added by these countries alone broadly match the entire 2000 U.S. total.

Worldwide, researcher numbers are rising robustly.

The size of the research workforce is another indicator of the economic importance of efforts to develop new knowledge and innovative products and processes. As is the case with S&E workforce numbers, reliable, internationally comparable data about individuals actively engaged in R&D are unavailable for much of the world. However, OECD captures such figures for its member countries and selected other economies. For all these combined, the data show robust 50% growth from 1995 to 2005 (figure O-35figure.).

This overall growth was uneven, with the number of researchers doubling in selected non-OECD economies including China,[7] slower growth in the United States (35%) and the EU (29%), stagnation in Japan (5%), and faster-than-average growth in the other OECD member countries (60%). The overall trend is toward an increase in personnel dedicated to R&D functions in the world's economies. According to OECD, a strong countervailing trend persists in the Russian Federation, where the number of researchers dropped from 610,000 in 1995 to 465,000 in 2005.

In the United States, S&E occupations have long grown faster than others.

Long-term data on the U.S. workforce show a trend toward increasing numbers of workers in S&T-related occupations (figure O-36figure.). Although different data sources yield somewhat different estimates of the size of the S&E labor force, there is no doubt that overall growth has been large and steady for more than a half century. During this period, growth patterns within individual occupations have varied. In the 1990s, for example, widespread computerization was accompanied by a sharp rise in the numbers of people working as mathematicians and information technologists, while the number of workers classified as engineers or technicians changed relatively little.

For decades, the workforce growth rates in S&E occupations have exceeded those in the general labor force (figure O-37figure.); consequently, the proportion of the workforce in S&E occupations has risen by 60% since the early 1980s. Nonetheless, S&E employees still represent a small fraction of the total U.S. workforce: the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey estimates that jobs in S&E occupations increased from 2.6% in 1983 to 4.2% in 2006 (figure O-38figure.).

Individuals in S&E occupations are distributed throughout the economy (figure O-39figure.). Economic sectors with large proportions of workers in S&E occupations tend to have higher average salaries for both S&E workers and those in other occupations (table O-8 table.). The association between sectors with relatively large amounts of S&T-related work and sectors that enable many workers to enjoy middle-class incomes has fueled government efforts to encourage development of industries in which S&E work is important.

Successive cohorts entering the U.S. workforce have higher proportions in S&E occupations.

As productive uses of knowledge become more central to economic activity, larger percentages of young workers find jobs in S&E occupations. Census data show how this movement toward a more knowledge-intensive economy is reflected in the changing profile of the workforce (figure O-40figure.). Since 1950, workers in S&E occupations have been found disproportionately in the younger cohorts of the prime working-age population (ages 25–64). Among workers 25–34 years old, the proportion of S&E workers increased from 1.7% in 1950 to 5.2% in 2000. Similar increases occurred in the other prime working-age groups, with the proportion of workers in S&E occupations approximately tripling in each group between 1950 and 2000 (figure O-40).

Over a lifetime, workers move both into and out of S&E jobs. Those moving into S&E jobs may have acquired the necessary skills through workforce experience or adult education to respond to the growing demand for S&E workers; those moving out of these jobs may acquire managerial roles, change occupations, or fail to maintain or acquire S&E-related skills that are in demand. For each generation of workers, the numbers in S&E occupations increase until some time in midlife and then decrease as workers near or reach retirement. In the generations born before or during World War II, the proportion of workers who were in S&E occupations at different ages did not follow a consistent pattern. For example, for those born between 1936 and 1945, the proportion was almost constant for four decades, a pattern shown by no other generation.

With accelerating movement toward a knowledge-intensive economy, however, younger generations appear to experience a net movement into S&E occupations over the course of their working lives. Beginning with the "baby boom" generation of workers born after World War II (1946–55), the proportion in S&E occupations increased substantially with time. Thus, 2.8% of baby boomers were in S&E occupations in 1980, rising to 3.8% in 2000; for workers born in the next decade, the proportion increased from 3.5% in 1990 to 4.6% in 2000 (figure O-41figure.). Immigrant S&E workers partly account for the increasing proportion of S&E workers over time in this cohort, but the number increases among the native-born as well.

A knowledge-intensive economy requires skills of S&E-trained persons in a wide range of sectors and positions.

The relevance of S&E knowledge goes beyond narrowly defined S&E occupations. Although most people with S&E degrees do not work in S&E occupations, a large majority of degree holders say that they need at least a bachelor's degree-level knowledge of S&E in their jobs (figure O-42figure.).

Most S&E degree holders work in for-profit companies. In 2003, about three of five individuals whose highest degree was in S&E worked in this sector. Education (16%) and government (13%) were the next largest employers of workers with S&E degrees. Among those with S&E doctoral degrees, the higher education sector is the largest employer (44%), but the for-profit sector share is also large (33%) (figure O-43figure.). These data suggest that many for-profit companies find S&T-related skills, including the advanced skills associated with doctoral education, useful for competing in the private economy.

Almost 40% of R&D workers are found in non-S&E occupations.

Workers with S&E degrees for whom R&D is a significant work activity have backgrounds in a variety of S&E fields, suggesting that R&D skills relevant to a knowledge-intensive economy can develop through multiple paths. Substantially more of these R&D workers are trained in engineering than in any other field. A sizeable proportion of S&E-trained workers for whom R&D is a major work activity are not in S&E occupations (39%), and many of them (26%) are not in S&E-related occupations. For workers who devote at least 10% of their work time to R&D, the comparable proportions (55% and 40%) are even higher (figure O-44figure.).


[7] Time-series data are available for China, Taiwan, Singapore, Romania, and Slovenia.

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