Why STEM Jobs are Good for the Economy

You’re likely aware of the demand for STEM education and jobs. Schools across the nation have created STEM-centric initiatives to improve students’ performance in the fields of science and mathematics. Although the United States’ economy has been recovering, there is room for improvement located within the STEM field.

What makes something a "STEM job"?

Some positions are more obviously STEM than others. First, let’s dissect the acronym: STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” Computer scientists and engineers immediately come to mind when you picture a STEM job; nurses and psychologists may not. You can break STEM down into eight large disciplines:

  • Computer Science: computer programmers, computer hardware engineers, information systems managers
  • Chemistry: chemical engineers, chemical technicians, biochemists
  • Mathematics: risk management specialists, actuaries, statisticians
  • Engineering: electrical engineers, nuclear engineers, industrial health and safety engineers
  • Life Sciences: nutritionist, microbiologists, clinical psychologists
  • Geosciences: hydrologists, natural scientists managers
  • Environmental Sciences: climate change analysts, environmental engineers,
  • Physics/Astronomy: astronomers, physicists.

Although unemployment is typically low in STEM fields, the positions take longer to fill than non-STEM openings. On average, a STEM job requiring professional credentials take 50 days to fill; a non-STEM job takes 33 days. Naturally, the waiting game is even longer in areas with lower  STEM unemployment rates. It can take twice as long for a low-unemployment area to fill a STEM job.

The biggest obstacle for STEM employment is the specific qualifications these positions require. These jobs often call for specialized skills and degrees—and that’s reflected in the high salaries. However, the difficulty goes beyond the white-collar STEM careers; those that require a bachelor’s degree or less still take longer than their non-STEM counterparts.

What does this have to do with the economy?

It is true that STEM jobs can help the economy. People just need to get them! The demand of specialized STEM skills makes these jobs somewhat out of reach for people searching for jobs within a strictly STEM field; surprisingly, about 75% of people with STEM degrees don’t work in STEM disciplines. This is especially common of people with degrees in psychology. The demand for STEM jobs is only projected to grow; however, the demand for specialized skills for these careers exceeds the supply.

At the end of the day, this causes an earnings and unemployment gap between STEM and non-STEM workers. This causes income inequality to become an even larger problem for everyone, particularly people without bachelors’ degrees and racial minorities. STEM careers call for specialized, technical training. Even if you’re seeking a job outside of the STEM fields, you may end up needing STEM skills in your job anyway—after all, 20% of all U.S. jobs require a strong background in any given STEM discipline.

According to a study published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based nonprofit public policy organization, communities with STEM-concentrated economies perform better than others. They have higher employment rates, wages, and rates of job growth. Even STEM jobs that don’t require a bachelors’ degree typically yield wages 10% higher than similar, non-STEM opportunities.

How can we close the earnings gap?

The first step? Bring more STEM education to minorities. African Americans and Latinos as a whole lack STEM-preparedness when compared to other demographics. Black and Latino students are often discouraged from pursuing the sciences before graduating high school. From there, only 17% of African Americans and 21% of Latinos with bachelor’s degrees graduated with a STEM degree—and both are less likely to have a college degree at all.  Census data shows the median household income of African Americans and Latinos lags behind that of white Americans.

Communities of color are hurting from the lack of STEM training and encouragement. Increasing the number of STEM-ready employees in these communities can help close the income gap. STEM-centric programs in schools, scholarships, and career training programs for all STEM jobs (regardless of degree requirement) can lower unemployment rates in the STEM disciplines and make higher paying jobs available to all. In layman's terms, we call that a win-win.