Report: Non-STEM Fields Increasingly Require STEM Skills (US News)

A new report suggests technological innovation has opened science, technology, engineering and math opportunities in non-STEM industries.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to define who is and is not included in America’s modern STEM – or science, technology, engineering and math – workforce, simply because technical proficiency is becoming mandatory in a diverse body of occupations.

STEM worker shortages have garnered plenty of headlines in recent years as an increasingly technical and automated job market demands more out of its workers. But a Tuesday report from the National Science Board argues such complaints have been around since the 1950s and that they're ultimately not a good use of time.

Innovation has blurred the line between what does and does not constitute a STEM employee, and it's hard to measure a shortage without a precise definition.

“We’re observing that this term that we use, ‘STEM workforce,’ is really a nebulous term. It lacks any kind of consensus definition,” Dan Arvizu, chairman of the National Science Board and director and chief executive at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said in a conference call Tuesday. “As science and technology have kind of permeated all corners of our economy, the distinctions between STEM and non-STEM jobs in the workplace are beginning to blur.”

[READ: Dan Arvizu Honored in U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame]

In 2010, only about 5.4 million people, or less than 4 percent of the country’s workforce at the time, held positions that would typically be classified as science and engineering, like chemists, doctors and mathematicians that have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

But 16.5 million people, nearly 12 percent of the 2010 workforce, said they worked in positions that required at least a bachelor’s degree in a science or engineering concentration.

“New industries and the growing importance of STEM skills in jobs not traditionally thought of as STEM means that we must revisit what we mean by a ‘STEM worker,’” Arvizu said in a press release accompanying Tuesday’s report.

Bobby Bono, leader of the U.S. industrial manufacturing group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says this trend is particularly apparent in the manufacturing sector, where automation and innovation have wiped out many low-skill positions and created a need for STEM-savvy employees that previously didn’t have much of a niche in the industry.

“The workers that traditionally work in a lot of these manufacturing companies are not the workers that they need,” Bono says. “[Employers are] trying to figure out, ‘What do I do to retrain or to get different employees in here that have that engineering or computer background that I need? Or how do I teach my existing employees how to do that?”

The sector, which historically provided millions of low-skill, non-STEM opportunities, saw its national payroll peak at nearly 20 million in June 1979. Today, only about 12 million employees are left in the sector, with many more opportunities for those who can program and operate computers and robotic equipment than were available in the 1970s.

The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index shows that STEM employment in the United States has gone up by more than 30 percent, from 12.8 million STEM jobs (as defined by the U.S. government) in 2000 to 16.8 million in 2013. But those numbers do not include jobs in non-traditionally STEM fields that still require STEM skills. 

“Perhaps we ought to shift from asking ‘how many STEM workers do we need?’ to ‘what knowledge and skills do all of our workers need to be successful now and in the future?’” Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chairman at the National Science Board and meteorology professor and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Millions of workers who aren’t typically understood to be ‘STEM workers’ need these capabilities to be successful, and businesses need individuals with these skills to be globally competitive.’”

A March report from Capital One Financial Corp and Burning Glass Technologies found that digital proficiency had become a requirement for nearly 80 percent of middle-skill jobs that require at least a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year bachelor’s degree, like some office assistants, sales representatives and recruiters.

Job growth for digitally intensive middle-skills positions ballooned 4.7 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the report, compared to just 1.9 percent growth for nondigital middle-skills jobs during the same window.

And while employees that would traditionally be considered non-STEM are increasingly finding themselves in need of STEM skills in the workplace, those with STEM degrees are finding a growing number of opportunities outside of stereotypical science and engineering roles.

The National Science Board report found that more than half (51 percent) of individuals whose most advanced degree is in a science or engineering field worked in a non-science or non-engineering role in 2010.

Though less than 4 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2010 was classified as working in a science or engineering field, the report notes that nearly 20 percent of all occupations may “require significant STEM knowledge and skill in at least one field.”

“It’s time to stop thinking in terms of a pipeline from STEM degrees to STEM jobs,” Droegemeier said in the statement. “When you look closely at the data, you see that a degree in S&E is a passport to many jobs in STEM and non-STEM fields alike.”

But landing a STEM degree doesn’t necessarily lock down a job in one’s field of choice (or, at least, it didn’t as of 2010). A reported 8.4 percent of all individuals who earned their highest degree in a science or engineering field were working “involuntarily” out of their field because they couldn’t find a job.

This was true for 5.1 percent of computer and mathematical sciences degree-earners and 11.3 percent who majored in social sciences. The data suggest there may not necessarily be a shortage of STEM workers in STEM fields, but the report makes it clear that non-STEM sectors increasingly find themselves in need of STEM-savvy labor.

“The report’s take-home message is that STEM knowledge and skills enable both individual opportunity and national competitiveness,” Arvizu said in the press release. “Ensuring access to high quality education and training experiences for all students at all levels and for all workers at all career stages is absolutely essential.” 

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