Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • The estimated size of the science and engineering (S&E) workforce ranges from nearly 7 million in S&E occupations to nearly 25 million with an S&E degree (at the bachelor’s level or higher). The S&E workforce can be defined in a variety of ways: as workers in S&E occupations, as holders of S&E degrees, or as those who use S&E technical expertise on the job.
  • The business sector employs most S&E workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher (71%), followed by the education (18%) and government (11%) sectors; for S&E doctorate holders, both the business (48%) and education (43%) sectors are prominent employers.
  • The number of women in S&E occupations or with S&E bachelor’s level degrees doubled over the past two decades. In 2017, they were underrepresented in S&E occupations (29%) and S&E degrees (40%) relative to their proportion of the U.S. residential population age 21 or older (52%).
  • The number of blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives with their highest degree in S&E collectively increased nearly four-fold since 1993. They are underrepresented in S&E occupations (13%) and degrees (16%) relative to their proportion of the U.S. residential population age 21 or older (28%).
  • There are over 17 million workers in the skilled technical workforce (STW)—those with some high school or a high school diploma, some college or an associate’s degree, or equivalent training in occupations that employ significant levels of S&E expertise and technical knowledge.
  • Individuals in the S&E workforce, including skilled technical workers, tend to have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than their counterparts in the general workforce.

Individuals in the S&E workforce make important contributions to improve a nation’s living standards, economic growth, and global competitiveness. They fuel a nation’s innovative capacity through their research, development, and other technologically advanced work activities. The emphasis on developing S&E expertise and technical capabilities has been a global phenomenon. Internationally comparable data, although limited, provide strong evidence of a widespread, but uneven, growth in the S&E workforce of the world’s developed nations.

In a knowledge-based economy like the United States, the application of S&E expertise is widespread across economic sectors. As such, the S&E workforce may be defined in various ways. At its core are individuals in S&E occupations; however, those with S&E degrees who are employed in a variety of other occupations make important contributions to the nation’s welfare. In addition, skilled technical workers—those with some high school or a high school diploma, some college or associate’s degree working in occupations that require significant scientific and technological expertise—provide critical support to scientific research and development.

Regardless of how they are identified, S&E workers are employed in all sectors of the economy including industry, government, and education. Over half (53%) find employment in the private, for-profit sector. Doctoral S&E workers continue to be employed in large numbers in 4-year academic institutions mostly in full-time faculty positions. However, as a proportion of all academic doctoral positions, faculty positions (full, associate, and assistant professors) have declined, while other positions (research associates, adjunct appointments, and administrative positions) rose over time.

Workers employing S&E and technological expertise in their occupations experience better labor market outcomes than those in many other types of jobs. These positions pay more and tend to have lower unemployment rates than the overall workforce. Although S&E workers are not totally shielded from joblessness, workers with S&E training or in S&E occupations are less often exposed to periods of unemployment.

The link between one’s educational training and subsequent occupation provides insight into the opportunities and challenges workers may encounter in pursuing S&E careers. The S&E pathway from postsecondary training to subsequent work varies by both the field and level of degree. In general, S&E doctorates tend to work in S&E occupations, while the link between S&E field of study and S&E occupation is less salient at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. Furthermore, those with social science degrees are less likely to work in S&E occupations than those with degrees in computer and mathematical sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering.

The demographic composition of the S&E workforce in the United States is changing. Members of historically underrepresented groups—women and blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives—have increased their representation in the S&E labor force in recent decades, although this has been more prominent in some fields (e.g., life sciences and social sciences) than others (e.g., computer and mathematical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering). Despite the recent increases, these demographic groups are underrepresented in S&E overall. Women, for example, account for less than one-third of all workers (with bachelor’s or higher-level degrees) employed in S&E occupations despite representing half of the college-educated workforce. Among skilled technical workers, the racial and ethnic distribution of workers mostly mirrors that of the overall workforce; however, the majority of these workers are men.

Foreign-born individuals account for a considerable share of S&E employment in the United States (nearly 30%). Foreign-born noncitizens comprise a large proportion of S&E doctorate holders; for the most part, these doctorate recipients intend to stay in the United States to pursue their careers upon graduation—with many securing firm offers of work within a year of graduation. Furthermore, the bulk of these students remain working in the United States 5 to 10 years later, indicating that their contributions to the U.S. economy continue well after their training in U.S. institutions ends.