Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • By including workers of all educational backgrounds and the wide variety of occupations that require significant science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge and expertise, the STEM workforce represented 23% of the total U.S. workforce in 2019.
  • A little over half of STEM workers do not have a bachelor’s degree and work primarily in health care (19%), construction trades (20%), installation, maintenance, and repair (21%), and production occupations (14%).
  • Unemployment was lower among the STEM labor force (2%) compared to the non-STEM labor force (4%) in 2019, and this pattern persisted even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In 2019, STEM workers had higher median earnings ($55,000) than non-STEM workers ($33,000).
  • Women are about 34% of STEM workers, representing 44% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher and 26% of those without a bachelor’s degree.
  • Although Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians or Alaska Natives represent 30% of the employed U.S. population, they are 23% of the STEM workforce due to underrepresentation of these groups among STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Foreign-born workers accounted for 19% of the STEM workforce and 45% of a subset of STEM workers (i.e., mathematical and computer scientists, physical scientists, life scientists, social scientists, and engineers) with doctoral degrees in 2019.

Individuals in the STEM workforce make important contributions to improving a nation’s living standards, economic growth, and global competitiveness. They fuel a nation’s innovative capacity through their work in research and development (R&D) and in other technologically advanced activities, collectively referred to as the science and engineering (S&E) enterprise. The goal of this report is to provide information about the STEM workforce that enables insight into how the U.S. S&E enterprise is positioned to meet the needs of and compete in an increasingly technologically advanced economy, both nationally and internationally.

For this cycle, the report integrates two major components of the STEM workforce: workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher and workers without a bachelor’s degree, also referred to as the skilled technical workforce (STW). The inclusion of the STW recognizes the importance of these workers in adapting and maintaining new processes and technologies that are integral to the U.S. S&E enterprise and the increasing use of these skills across a broad range of occupations. As such, the STEM workforce described in this report includes occupations that have historically been known to require STEM skills and expertise (e.g., life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, social sciences, and health care) as well as occupations that are not typically considered STEM fields but that do, in fact, require STEM skills (e.g., installation, maintenance and repair, construction trades, and production occupations). This major shift in the broad understanding of the STEM workforce more than doubles the number of workers classified as part of the STEM workforce by including 16 million workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and 20 million without a bachelor’s degree.

Workers in STEM occupations experience lower rates of unemployment and higher salaries than those in non-STEM occupations, and employment in many STEM occupations is expected to grow. However, this projected growth may be unevenly distributed across the United States: 20 metropolitan areas employ disproportionately more workers at all education levels in life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and social sciences. STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher are employed proportionately more in coastal states, whereas STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree, the STW, are proportionately more in states in the South and Midwest regions of the United States.

Like their non-STEM counterparts, most STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher are employed by the business sector, reflecting the dominance of this sector among employers. However, this is not the case for STEM doctorate holders. In 2019, 4-year academic institutions (39%) and for-profit businesses (35%) employed similar proportions of those with doctoral degrees in a STEM field, although the 4-year academic institution share has declined since 1993 (45%). In academia, doctorate holders are shifting from faculty to nonfaculty positions and from teaching as a primary activity to R&D as a primary activity. In addition, full-time faculty as a percentage of all doctoral academic employment has been in steady decline for four decades, decreasing from about 90% in the early 1970s to 70% in 2019.

Typically, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in STEM occupations often have a degree in a STEM field. However, many workers with a STEM education background pursue careers outside of STEM, indicating the applicability of STEM skills and expertise across a broad range of occupations. For example, STEM degree holders are employed in large numbers (more than 1 million in each) as financial or personnel specialists, executive-level managers or education administrators, and sales and marketing workers. In addition, about 70% of STEM degree holders who worked in occupations outside of STEM reported that their occupation was closely or somewhat related to their degree field. Overall, only 37% of workers with their highest degree in computer and mathematical sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, or engineering worked in occupations classified as scientists or engineers. In contrast, 71% of workers with their highest degree in a health-related field, STEM education field, or technology or technical field worked in occupations related to these degree fields.

Less information is available regarding the education and training pathways for STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree, which include associate’s degrees, certificate programs, apprenticeships, certifications, and licenses. However, STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree earn associate’s degrees and hold certifications and licenses at higher rates than their non-STEM counterparts.

Although data about workers without a bachelor’s degree in STEM are limited, several key findings are evident by comparing the two components of the STEM workforce, in particular, information relevant to broadening participation for historically underrepresented groups: women, Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians or Alaska Natives. The proportion of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the STEM workforce is greater than those without a bachelor’s degree in STEM. Women in the STEM workforce with at least a bachelor’s degree exceeded their 50% representation within the U.S. employed population in some STEM occupations. For example, among health care workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, women were 70% of the workforce in 2019; within health care, however, women tended to be employed in the lower-paying occupations.

The number and proportion of workers from an underrepresented race or ethnicity have increased within the STEM workforce with Hispanic or Latino workers mostly closing the gap in representation. Although those from certain races or ethnicities are underrepresented among STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the degree to which they are underrepresented varies across STEM occupations. In 2019, Blacks or African Americans were 12% of the employed U.S. population. However, Blacks or African Americans represented 6% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher who were classified as computer and mathematical scientists but represented 13% of computer network architects and 17% of information security analysts. Similarly, Hispanic or Latino Americans were comparable to or proportionately more than their representation in the U.S. employed population in several occupations in the social sciences. Many factors can contribute to the uneven concentration of underrepresented minority races or ethnicities across STEM occupations, and further research is needed to understand the barriers to broadening participation among them.

In addition to Americans born in the United States, a substantial proportion of the STEM workforce is foreign born, making up 23% of this workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Foreign-born workers are particularly concentrated among those at the doctorate level who work as computer and mathematical scientists, engineers, and life scientists. China and India are the leading birthplaces for foreign-born STEM doctorate holders in the United States. Many U.S.-trained foreign-born doctorate holders in STEM fields (i.e., mathematics and computer sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and engineering) on temporary visas expect to remain within the United States a least a year after receiving their degrees. Many of these noncitizen doctorate recipients become permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Thus, immigration represents a key component to building the capacity of the U.S. STEM workforce.

The U.S. STEM workforce is large and diverse in occupations, education level, and nationality. Although STEM workers generally have better labor market outcomes compared to non-STEM workers, these benefits are unevenly distributed across region, sex, race, or ethnicity. While participation by historically underrepresented groups has grown, these groups continue to be less well represented, which may impede the innovative capacity of the U.S. S&E enterprise. Broadening participation in STEM and ensuring equitable distribution of benefits from STEM fosters the development of a robust STEM workforce, which is critical for improving the nation’s living standards, providing economic growth, and maintaining global competitiveness.