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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force


The S&E labor force may be defined in a variety of ways. At its core are individuals in S&E occupations, but those with S&E degrees who are employed in a variety of other jobs also play a role. Many more individuals hold S&E degrees than work in S&E occupations. Indicative of a knowledge-based economy, many of those in non-S&E occupations report that their work nonetheless requires at least a bachelor’s degree level of S&E knowledge and skills. This suggests that the application of S&E knowledge and technical expertise is widespread across the U.S. economy and not just limited to S&E occupations.

In both the United States and the rest of the world, the S&E workforce has experienced strong growth over time. During the 2007–09 economic downturn, S&E employment remained more resilient in the United States than overall employment. Policymakers with otherwise divergent perspectives agree that jobs involving S&E are good for workers and good for the economy as a whole. These jobs pay more, even when compared to jobs requiring similar levels of education and comparably specialized skills. Although S&E workers are not totally exempt from joblessness, workers with S&E training or in S&E occupations are less often exposed to periods of unemployment.

Innovation based on S&E R&D is globally recognized as an important vehicle for a nation’s economic growth and competitive advantage. As such, it is not surprising that growing numbers of workers worldwide are engaged in research. Growth has been especially marked in rapidly developing economies, such as China and South Korea, that have either recently joined the ranks of the world’s developed economies or are poised to do so. Mature developed economies in North America and Europe have maintained slower growth whereas the number of researchers in the struggling Japanese economy has been stagnant.

The demographic composition of the S&E workforce in the United States is changing. The baby boom portion of the S&E workforce continues to age into retirement. However, increasing proportions of scientists and engineers are postponing retirement to somewhat later ages. At the same time, members of historically underrepresented groups (e.g., women, blacks, Hispanics) have played an increasing role in the U.S. S&E labor force, although this has been more the case in some fields (e.g., life sciences and social sciences) than in others (e.g., computer and mathematical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering). Despite the recent increases in S&E participation by women and by racial and ethnic minorities, both groups remain underrepresented in the U.S. S&E workforce compared to their overall labor force participation. For example, women account for slightly more than one-fourth of all workers employed in S&E occupations in the United States despite representing half of the college-educated workforce.

The United States has remained an attractive destination for foreign students and workers with advanced S&E training. In the wake of the 2001 recession, there were increases in both temporary work visas and stay rates of foreign recipients of S&E doctorates. Although declines occurred during the 2007–09 economic downturn—a period marked by rising unemployment in the United States among workers in S&E as well as in other occupations—growth has since resumed.

In today’s dynamic marketplace, where information flows rapidly and technology is always evolving, labor market conditions change fast. Numerous factors—such as global competition, demographic trends, aggregate economic activities, and S&E training pathways and career opportunities—will affect the availability of workers equipped with S&E expertise as well as the kinds of jobs that the U.S. economy generates in the future. As a result, comprehensive and timely analysis of current labor force and demographic trends will play a critical role in providing the information needed to understand the dynamic S&E landscape both in the United States and globally.