During the second half of the 20th century, strong demand in the U.S. for trained science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals fueled significant growth across all of science and its allied fields.
Edited by Victoria Burt
But following years of rapid growth, the STEM share of all U.S. employment has dropped to levels last seen during the mid-90s, according to a report released by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST).
The report finds that since 2001, STEM professionals have accounted for a declining share of total employment in the U.S. The nation’s scientific and technical workforce is still growing, but it is now lagging behind the growth of the U.S. labor force as a whole.
“For years we’ve heard alarm bells from all sectors about the supply side of the STEM workforce,” says Lisa Frehill, executive director of CPST. “This report calls for a critical shift of our attention to the demand side of the equation. We must consider why certain occupations are not faring well domestically and the impact that might have on the nation’s long-term economic outlook.”
A white paper, Is U.S. Science and Technology Adrift?, assesses the present condition of employment and compensation in STEM occupations and examines the status of science in the U.S. Highlights include:
- In 2006, STEM professionals accounted for 5% of all employed civilians in the U.S., down from 5.6% in both 2000 and 2001.
- Between 1995 and 2002, information technology employment rose 75% faster than the rate of job growth for the general economy, but compensation for IT workers did not rise much above the modest improvement of about 7.7% in real income that all employed persons received.
- IT jobs account for more than 42% of all STEM employment, but the 1990s boom in IT jobs has ended.
- Job growth resumed for mechanical engineers between 2003 and 2006, but employment in industrial engineering continued to decline.
- Within professions tied to the chemical industry, employment losses continued between 2003 and 2006. But losses in compensation declined for chemical technicians and pay scales improved for chemists.
- Two larger STEM occupations have done well in recent years: aerospace engineering and medical scientists. Both of these occupations enjoyed aboveaverage growth in employment between 2003 and 2006.
So is U.S. science and technology adrift? “Of course it is,” says Richard Ellis, the report’s author. “Given the decentralized nature of scientific and technical activity, public policy does not reflect all the concerns and issues that matter in maintaining the general scientific capabilities of the United States.”
Ellis says there is no shortage of people interested in STEM fields, but there are few reasons to believe technical careers will be worth the investment of time and training. To attract more participants, “at least two problems need attention,” he says. “First, at the very time the nation needs to make STEM careers more attractive, domestic job markets are soft because employers are tapping foreign labor. The second problem is that the dangers of drift remain. Although the America Competes Act may provide some new support for STEM activities, the legislation doesn’t address labor-market conditions that are discouraging participation in U.S. science, and the actual appropriations or other initiatives that might be enabled by the act may not be enough to reverse current trends.”
Steps could be taken to improve the outlook for U.S. science and technology, the report notes. The most obvious move is to address the disconnects in federal STEM policy, which has yet to come to grips with issues like offshoring and the use of guest workers. In addition, STEMwide initiatives to raise the visibility and influence of scientific and technical professions are recommended.
Is U.S. Science and Technology Adrift? is available free of charge on CPST’s Web site, cpst.org, as are earlier reports and white papers.