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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

Global S&E Labor Force

Work that involves science and engineering occurs throughout the world. Such work is concentrated in developed nations, where most R&D also takes place. The availability of a suitable labor force is an important determinant of where businesses choose to locate S&E work (Davis and Hart 2010), and concentrations of existing S&E work, in turn, spawn new employment opportunities for workers with relevant S&E knowledge and skills. As a result, governments in many countries have made increased investments in S&E-related postsecondary education a high priority. At the same time, high-skill workers, such as those in S&E occupations, are increasingly mobile, and the number who leave their native countries to pursue education and career goals is growing. In recent years many nations, recognizing the value of high-skill workers for the economy as a whole, have changed their laws to make it easier for such workers to immigrate. These changes indicate an accelerating competition for globally mobile talent (Shachar 2006).

Ideally, data on the global S&E labor force would include statistics on its overall size and growth, enable detailed comparisons of S&E labor force characteristics in different countries, and track flows of S&E workers across national boundaries. Unfortunately, the internationally comparable data that exist are limited to establishment surveys that provide only basic information about workers in S&E occupations or with training in S&E disciplines. The U.S. SESTAT system, for example, includes far more data on members of the U.S. S&E labor force than is available in other national statistical systems. In addition, although surveys that collect workforce data are conducted in many member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), they do not cover several countries—including Brazil, India, and Israel—that have been making concerted efforts to build knowledge economies in which S&E play a central role, and they do not provide fully comparable data for China.

This section begins with information about the size and growth of workforce segments whose jobs involve S&E in nations for which relevant data exist. It then reports limited data on high-skill migration trends. Data on the role of immigrants in the U.S. S&E labor force are reported earlier in this chapter (see "Demographics in the S&E Labor Force"). The section closes with data on international employment by U.S. multinational companies and international engagement by members of the U.S. S&E workforce.

Size and Growth of Global S&E Labor Force

Although comprehensive data on the worldwide S&E workforce do not exist, OECD data covering significant, internationally comparable segments of the S&E workforce provide strong evidence of widespread, though uneven, growth in the world's developed nations.

OECD countries, which include most of the world's highly developed nations, compile data on researchers from establishment surveys in member and selected non-member countries. These surveys mostly use a standardized occupational classification that defines researchers as "professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems and also in the management of the projects concerned" (OECD 2002, p. 93). Because this definition can be applied differently when different nations conduct surveys, international comparisons should be made with caution. The OECD also reports data on personnel employed directly in R&D. These data include clerical and administrative staff employed in R&D organizations as well as professionals whose skills and career paths are more closely connected to R&D.

OECD reports an estimated increase in researchers in its member countries from 2.8 million in 1995 to 4.2 million in 2007. OECD also publishes estimates for eight non-member economies, including China and Russia; adding these to the OECD member total for 2007 yields a worldwide estimate of 6.3 million. Numerous uncertainties affect this estimate, however:

  • Some non-member countries that engage in large and growing amounts of research (e.g., India, Brazil) are omitted entirely from these totals.
  • China's data for 2009, collected in accordance with OECD definitions and standards, yield an estimate of about 440,000 fewer researchers than China's data for the preceding year.
  • For some countries and regions, including the United States and the European Union, OECD estimates are derived from multiple national data sources and not from a uniform or standardized data collection procedure.

Despite these limitations for making worldwide estimates of the number of researchers, the OECD data are a reasonable starting point for estimating the rate of worldwide growth.

For most economies with large numbers of researchers, growth since the mid-1990s has been substantial (figure 3-45). China, whose pre-2009 data did not entirely correspond to the OECD definition, reported about triple the number of researchers in 2008 compared with 1995. South Korea doubled its number of researchers between 1995 and 2006 and continued to grow strongly between 2007 and 2008. The United States and the European Union experienced steady growth but at a lower rate between 1995 and 2007, both starting the period at about 1 million researchers and increasing to almost 1.5 million. Japan (little change) and Russia (decline, especially early in the period; see also Gokhberg and Nekipelova 2002) were exceptions to the overall worldwide trend. Trends in full-time equivalent R&D personnel were generally parallel to those for researchers in those cases for which both kinds of data are available (appendix table 3-22).

OECD also estimates the proportion of researchers in the workforce in different economies. In OECD's most recent estimates, small economies in Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) and East Asia (Singapore, Taiwan) report that at least 1% of their workforce are researchers (appendix table 3-23).[24] Among economies with more than 200,000 researchers, OECD's latest estimates are that researchers make up the highest proportions of the workforce in Japan (1.04%), South Korea (1.00%), and the United States (0.95%). Although China reports a large number of researchers, they are a much smaller percentage of its workforce (0.15%) than in OECD member countries.

Several Asian economies have shown marked and continuous increases since 1995 in the percentage of their workforce employed as researchers. These include China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. In the United States and Japan, where growth occurred at all, it took place mostly between 1995 and 2003 (figure 3-46). Patterns and trends in the proportion of the workforce classified as R&D personnel are generally similar to those for researchers.

High-Skill Migration

Worldwide or internationally comparable data on migration of workers in S&E occupations or with college-level S&E degrees do not exist. Docquier, Lowell, and Marfouk (2009; see also Docquier and Marfouk 2006) compiled and analyzed data on migrants to OECD countries in 1990 and 2000. Their data come from almost 200 source locations, all but a handful of them independent nations. They report several characteristic patterns in high-skill migrations, defined as emigration of people with some postsecondary education from the country of their birth:

  • Between 1990 and 2000, the overall number of immigrants to OECD countries increased from about 42 million to about 58 million.
  • Rates of legal emigration were much greater among high-skill persons than among persons with less education.
  • In countries the World Bank classifies as low income, the gap in emigration rates between high- and low-skill groups (6.1% compared with a total emigration rate of 0.5%) was especially large.
  • The proportion of women among high-skill migrants rose, partly but not entirely because of the worldwide increase in the proportion of people with some postsecondary education who are women.
  • Countries estimated to have the largest number of high-skill emigrants living in OECD countries in 2000 were the United Kingdom (1.5 million), the Philippines (1.1 million), India (1.0 million), Mexico (0.9 million), and Germany (0.9 million) (figure 3-47).
  • In both 1990 and 2000, about half of the immigrants with tertiary education living in OECD countries were in the United States.

In a more limited study covering six major destination countries, Defoort (2008) concluded that worldwide emigration rates for high-skill persons were stable between 1975 and 2000; Docquier and Marfouk (2006) calculate an increase in the migration rate for these persons from 5.0% to 5.4% between 1990 and 2000. Nonetheless, because worldwide education levels are rising, the proportion of high-skill persons among those who immigrated to OECD countries rose between 1990 and 2000 (Docquier and Marfouk 2006).

Insofar as S&E workers, especially those in natural science and engineering fields, are less dependent on language- and culture-specific skills than highly educated workers trained in other fields, they may be more internationally mobile than other high-skill workers. Thus, in the United States high-skill immigrants are disproportionately found in S&E occupations and disproportionately have degrees in the natural sciences and engineering. However, current international data do not enable researchers to assess whether and how migration rates vary among different categories of high-skill workers.

R&D Employment Abroad by U.S. Companies

R&D jobs located abroad in U.S.-owned companies are an indicator of global engagement in the world's S&E workforce. Data from the 2009 Business R&D and Innovation Survey provide an overview of R&D employment in the business sector and enable comparisons between domestic and foreign R&D employment in companies located in the United States (both U.S.- and foreign-owned) that have R&D activity (table 3-32). These data identify employment as either domestic or foreign on the basis of the job's location and not on the basis of the company's ownership, the employee's citizenship, or the employee's place of birth.

Among firms with five or more employees, R&D employment is disproportionately domestic. About one-third of all employees are located abroad, compared with about one-quarter of R&D employees. There is a large disparity between the overall proportion of manufacturing employment that is foreign (41%) and the proportion of manufacturing R&D employment that is foreign (25%). In contrast, the proportions in nonmanufacturing industries are similar: 24% for overall employment and 23% for R&D employment.

Larger companies locate more of their R&D employment outside the country than small ones. In firms with 1,000 or more employees, 30% of R&D employment is foreign- based, whereas only 11% is foreign-based in firms with fewer than 1,000 employees. In both cases, comparable percentages are higher for overall employment (37% and 22%, respectively).

The domestic and foreign R&D workforces of U.S.-located businesses have similar occupational and demographic profiles. Data on broad occupational categories, levels of educational attainment, and sex distributions for businesses in different sectors and of different sizes are in appendix table 3-24.

Multinational companies (MNCs) perform a substantial proportion of R&D through foreign direct investment (FDI) (see chapter 4). Data on MNC R&D employment count managers, scientists, engineers, and other professional and technical employees engaged in R&D. The Survey of U.S. Direct Investment Abroad, conducted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), provides data on R&D employment of parent companies of U.S. MNCs and their overseas affiliates every 5 years. Preliminary data for this indicator are available for 2009. Separately, BEA's Survey of Foreign Direct Investment in the United States includes data on U.S. R&D employment by foreign-based MNCs.[25]

Between 1994 and 2004, R&D employment in the United States by foreign firms grew slightly faster than R&D employment abroad by U.S. firms. During this period, R&D employment in the United States by majority-owned affiliates[26] of foreign firms rose from 89,800 to 128,500, a 43% increase (figure 3-48). Over the same 10 years, R&D employment by U.S. firms at their majority-owned foreign affiliates grew 35%, from 102,000 in 1994 to 137,800 in 2004. Adding U.S. parent company R&D employment of 716,400 workers, U.S. MNCs employed 854,200 R&D workers globally (figure 3-49) in 2004.

The average annual growth in R&D employment abroad by U.S. firms from 1994 to 2004 was 3%. This shifted their proportion of overseas employment slightly, increasing it from 14% to 16% of total employment.

The 2009 data on MNC R&D employment abroad show a markedly different trend after 2004 from the trend in the preceding decade. About 85% of MNC R&D employment growth occurred abroad. Whereas employment abroad nearly doubled, domestic employment during the same period grew by less than 5%. As a result, the proportion of MNC R&D employment located outside the United States went from 16% to 27%.

The unprecedented increase in U.S. MNC R&D employment abroad contrasts with the continuation of modest growth in R&D employment by foreign firms in the United States. Because of this, unlike in 2004 and prior years, the amount of R&D employment attributed to U.S. MNCs abroad is much larger than the comparable figure for foreign firms in the United States (figure 3-48).

The data in figures 3-48 and 3-49 are consistent with two trends discussed in this chapter: growth in S&T employment in the United States coinciding with a general expansion throughout the world of the capacity to do S&T work.

International Engagement by the Domestic S&E Workforce

Working with people in foreign countries is an indicator of how globally engaged the S&E workforce is. In 2006, SESTAT asked survey respondents whether they had worked "with individuals located in other countries" during a particular week. Seventeen percent of respondents reported that they had.

The proportion of the workforce that reported this kind of international engagement varied depending on differences in their work roles and demographic characteristics (table 3-33; appendix table 3-25) (NSF/NCSES 2012c, forthcoming). The following patterns were found among SESTAT respondents:

  • Workers in for-profit organizations (24%) had the highest rates of international work, more often reporting such work than those in government, education, self-employment, or nonprofit organizations. Federal government workers had higher rates than state or local employees, and those in 4-year higher educational institutions had higher rates than persons teaching at institutions serving less advanced students.
  • Workers in S&E occupations had much higher rates of international engagement (28%) than those in non-S&E (16%) or S&E-related (8%) occupations.
  • Among those in S&E occupations, computer and mathematical scientists and engineers had the highest rates of international engagement and social scientists had the lowest rates. However, within employment sectors field differences did not consistently follow this pattern.
  • Doctorate holders had substantially higher rates of international engagement than individuals whose highest degrees were at the master's or bachelor's level. Professional degree holders had the lowest rates of all.
  • Men (21%) reported international engagement more often than women (11%).
  • Foreign-born survey respondents (24%) reported international engagement more often than U.S.-born individuals (15%).
  • SESTAT respondents who earned degrees both in the United States and abroad had the highest rates of international engagement (31%). The comparable figure for those who earned their degrees abroad was 23%, and for those with only U.S. degrees it was 16%.

SESTAT respondents showed substantial variation in international engagement depending on their work activities. For persons reporting either computer applications, programming, and systems or R&D as a primary or secondary work activity, the rate of international engagement was high—about one-quarter reported an international interaction. Rates for teaching (6%) and for professional services (7%) were substantially lower than for other activities.

Data on another indicator of international engagement, international coauthorship of S&E journal articles, are reported in chapter 5.


[24] OECD's 2009 estimates for Norway and Singapore exceeded 1%, although the 2008 estimates reported in appendix table 3-23 did not. Iceland, which is not included in appendix table 3-23, was also above 1% in both years. OECD's estimate for Japan reported in the text is also more recent than that in the appendix table.
[25] Although R&D employment by subsidiaries is an important indicator of international R&D activity, it has a significant limitation in that it does not include various external arrangements for performing R&D, ranging from R&D contracting to consulting work and strategic collaborations.
[26] An affiliate is a company or business enterprise located in one country but owned or controlled by a parent company in another country. Majority-owned affiliates are those in which the ownership stake of parent companies is more than 50%.