U.S. S&E Workforce: Definition, Size, and Growth

The S&E workforce can be defined in several ways: as workers in S&E occupations (6.7 million), as holders of S&E degrees (23.2 million), or as those who use S&E technical expertise on the job (19.4 million). The estimated size of the S&E workforce varies depending on the definitional criteria chosen.

  • In 2015, estimates of the size of the S&E workforce ranged from over 6 million to more than 23 million depending on the definition used.
  • In 2015, an estimated 6.4 million college graduates were employed in S&E occupations in the United States. The largest S&E occupations were computer and mathematical sciences (3.1 million), followed by engineering (1.7 million). Occupations in life sciences (631,000), social sciences (570,000), and physical sciences (331,000) combined to about the size of the engineering component.

In 2015, about 23.2 million individuals in the United States had a bachelor’s or higher level degree in an S&E field of study. Of these 23.2 million individuals, the majority (17.3 million) held their highest level of degree (which can be a bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctorate) in an S&E field, the remainder held their highest level of degree in an S&E-related or non-S&E field. Of these S&E highest degrees, the most common fields were social sciences (6.8 million) and engineering (3.8 million). Computer and mathematical sciences (2.9 million), life sciences (2.8 million), and physical sciences (1.0 million) together were slightly less than the size of the social sciences component.

  • Not all S&E degree holders work in jobs formally designated as S&E occupations. The number of college-educated individuals reporting that their jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree level of technical expertise in S&E (19.4 million) is substantially higher than the number employed in S&E occupations (6.4 million), suggesting that the application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread across the technologically sophisticated U.S. economy and not limited to jobs classified as S&E.

The S&E workforce has grown steadily over time.

  • Between 1960 and 2015, the number of workers in S&E occupations grew at an average annual rate of 3%, compared with the 2% growth rate for the total workforce.
  • During and immediately after the 2007-09 economic downturn, trends in S&E employment fared relatively better compared to overall employment trends. Between 2007 and 2010, S&E employment level remained stable whereas total employment declined. Both employment levels have risen since 2010.

S&E Workers in the Economy

Scientists and engineers work for all types of employers.

  • The majority of scientists and engineers (individuals trained or employed in S&E) are employed in the business sector (71%), followed by the education (19%) and government (11%) sectors. Within the business sector, for-profit businesses employ the bulk of scientists and engineers.
  • Among individuals with S&E doctorates, the proportion working in the business sector is 48%, and the proportion working in the education sector is 43%. Within the education sector, over 90% work in 4-year colleges and universities, including those in postdoctoral and other temporary positions.
  • The majority of educational institutions and government entities that employ scientists and engineers are large employers (i.e., having 100 or more employees). In contrast, scientists and engineers working in the business sector are distributed across firms of different sizes.
  • Within the business sector, the industry with the largest number of workers in S&E occupations is professional, scientific, and technical services.
  • Employment in S&E occupations is geographically concentrated in the United States. The 20 metropolitan areas with the largest proportion of the workforce employed in S&E occupations in 2015 accounted for 19% of nationwide S&E employment, compared to 9% of all employment.

S&E Labor Market Conditions

Whether measured by S&E occupation or degree, S&E workers have higher earnings than other comparable workers.

  • Half of the workers in S&E occupations earned $84,000 or more in 2016, which is more than double the median salaries ($37,000) of the total workforce.
  • Employed college graduates with a highest degree in S&E earn more than those with non-S&E degrees (median salaries in 2015 were $68,000 and $55,000, respectively). For the most part, the earnings premium associated with an S&E degree is present across early, mid-, and later career stages.

The S&E labor force is less likely than others to experience unemployment.

  • Unemployment rates for college-educated individuals in S&E occupations tend to be lower than those for all college graduates and much lower than those for the overall labor force: In February 2015, about 3.3% of scientists and engineers and 3.5% of all college-educated individuals in the labor force were unemployed, which are both substantially less than the official unemployment rate for the entire U.S. labor force (5.8%).
  • Unemployment rates for S&E doctorate (2.6%) and master’s degree holders (2.8%) are even lower than those for S&E bachelor’s degree holders (4.0%).

Demographics of the S&E Workforce

Mirroring U.S. population trends, the S&E labor force is aging. Additionally, a larger proportion of older scientists and engineers remain in the labor force in 2015 than in 1993.

  • The median age of scientists and engineers in the labor force was 43 years in 2015, compared to 41 years in 1995.
  • Between 1993 and 2015, an increasing percentage of scientists and engineers in their 60s reported that they were still in the labor force. Whereas 54% of scientists and engineers between the ages of 60 and 69 were in the labor force in 1993, the comparable percentage rose to 62% in 2015.

Women remain underrepresented in the S&E workforce, but less so than in the past.

  • In 2015, women constituted 50% of the college-educated workforce, 40% of employed individuals whose highest degree was in an S&E field, and 28% of those in S&E occupations. The corresponding 1993 shares were 43%, 30%, and 23%, respectively.
  • Women employed in S&E occupations are concentrated in different occupational categories than men, with relatively high proportions in social sciences (60%) and life sciences (48%) and relatively low proportions in engineering (15%), physical sciences (28%), and computer and mathematical sciences (26%).

Historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics, continue to be part of the S&E workforce at rates lower than their presence in the U.S. population, whereas Asians and foreign-born individuals are represented in the S&E workforce at substantially higher rates.

  • Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians or Alaska Natives together make up 27% of the U.S. population age 21 and older but a much smaller proportion of the S&E workforce: 15% of S&E highest degree holders and 11% of workers in S&E occupations.
  • Conversely, Asians make up 6% of the U.S. population age 21 and older but account for 21% of those employed in S&E occupations. Asians have a large presence in engineering and computer sciences occupations, particularly among computer software and hardware engineers, software developers, computer and information research scientists, and postsecondary teachers in engineering.
  • About 67% of workers in S&E occupations are non-Hispanic whites, which is comparable to their overall representation in the U.S. population age 21 and older (66%).
  • Foreign-born individuals account for 29% of all workers in S&E occupations, which is substantially higher than their share of the entire college-educated workforce (17%).
  • Foreign-born workers employed in S&E occupations tend to have higher levels of education than their U.S. native-born counterparts.

A variety of indicators point to a post-recession increase in the immigration of scientists and engineers following a temporary decline during the 200709 economic downturn.

  • The issuance of new H-1B visas, which languished during the recession, continued to increase since 2009 and, by 2015, exceeded the pre-recession levels.
  • About 70% of temporary visa holders earning a U.S. S&E doctorate are in the United States at least 5 years later. This proportion reached 67% in 2005, declined during the economic downturn, and then rose to 70% in 2015.

Global S&E Labor Force

Worldwide, the number of workers engaged in research has been growing. This includes “professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge" who "conduct research and improve or develop concepts, theories, models, techniques instrumentation, software or operational methods" (OECD 2015).

  • Among countries with large numbers of researchers—defined as workers engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge—growth since 2000 has been most rapid in China and South Korea.
  • The United States and the European Union experienced steady growth but at lower rates than China or South Korea.
  • Russia and, to some extent, Japan were exceptions to the worldwide trend. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of researchers in Japan rose very slightly; in Russia, the number declined.