In the U.S., occupations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) currently make up more than one out of every 10 jobs and pay wages that are nearly twice the U.S. average, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But even with STEM-related careers projected to add 1 million additional jobs to the U.S. economy by 2022, many positions in these fields continue to go unfilled — revealing a breadth of opportunity for qualified candidates.
“[STEM] is one of the fastest growing occupational [categories] over the next 10 to 15 years. It grows faster than any others, in fact,” says Dr. Nicole Smith, a labor economist for the Center on Education in the Workforce at Georgetown University. “Overall, STEM continues to be a lucrative field and a great opportunity.”
At the Center on Education in the Workforce, Smith and her colleagues look at the U.S. economy to determine demand for specific jobs over a 10-year time frame. While STEM encompasses a variety of disciplines, the projected growth for each occupation varies; for instance, while computer science jobs can expect a tremendous spike in employment in the next several years, some engineering technician jobs are projected to grow very little.
The area Smith believes will see the largest increase in the number of jobs added between 2011 and 2022 is technology — in particular, computing, cyber security, and information technology (IT).
“If I had to really pick the fastest-growing STEM clusters, I would say computers. Software development, software engineers, and app developers are growing fast,” she says.
According to Roger Moncarz, who works in the Employment Projections Office at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Smith’s assessment is accurate. Based on findings from his office, IT is projected to add jobs in several key areas between 2011 and 2022: software application developers, 218,500 jobs; computer systems analysts, 210,000; and computer user support specialists, 197,000.
In addition, Moncarz says the occupation seeing the most growth within IT is information security analyst, which is projected to increase about 37 percent in the same time period. Of these fast-growing computer professions, U.S. News & World Report deemed three of them the “Best STEM Jobs of 2015,” including software developer at No. 1, followed by computer systems analyst and information security analyst.
“I think, when you look at the STEM fields, the IT occupations have obviously been enjoying very healthy employment growth, and I see no reason for that to slow down in the foreseeable future,” Moncarz says.
Other occupations that can expect job growth include operations research analysts, statisticians, and biomedical engineers, which Moncarz says are all projected to increase 27 percent. Actuaries and petroleum engineers may see a 26 percent boost. While these figures are significant, their scope is limited.
“The caveat with these occupations — with so many of these — is that they’re smaller, and they’re not adding as many jobs; so for example, biomedical engineers are only projected to add about 5,000 jobs,” he says.
Celeste Carter, lead program director for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technological Education Program, says the U.S. is also seeing more opportunities opening up in other hands-on areas of STEM, including manufacturing.
“I think one [reason for this] has been because of the current administration’s push toward bringing manufacturing back onshore; that’s been advanced manufacturing — everything from rapid prototyping or 3-D printing to … plants in the U.S. looking for qualified technicians,” she says.
Careers in STEM fields offer a wide range of benefits, including flexibility, high salaries, job satisfaction, and — for those working in math and computing, who saw 21 percent growth even during the recession — job security. But STEM careers can also offer the convenience of an easily accessible and affordable education.
According to a 2013 report from the Brookings Institution, nearly half of all STEM jobs don’t require a four-year degree and pay an average salary of $53,000, which is 10 percent higher than non-STEM jobs with similar education requirements.
For Carter, determining where the opportunities are for these STEM workers is part of her job. The NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program she leads partners STEM industries with community and technical colleges across the U.S. to provide funding to meet technical workforce needs.
Industry and community colleges collaborate to submit a proposal to ATE. If selected, the college is awarded funds to follow through with its proposal. Projects can range from revamping curricula to better meet the needs of the industry to developing new programs and certificates based on new and emerging fields.
Carter says that industries often struggle to find candidates with the hands-on skills and technical knowledge they need — skills that an associate’s degree can provide.
“A lot of people come to these community college technician education programs because they’ve tried to get a job in the industry — many of them have either a baccalaureate degree or an enhanced degree — [and] the industry says, ‘You don’t have the competencies and skills, we won’t hire you,’” says Carter. “They certainly have the academic knowledge they need in their head, but what the industry wasn’t seeing was that they had the skills and competencies to actually work in the [field].”
This skills gap is evidenced in a 2011 survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in which as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs remained unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates for technical positions requiring STEM skills.
One reason for this gap, Smith says, could be the negative connotations often associated with these lesser-educated professions. “Part of the problem is the stigma associated with manufacturing or with blue collar work, but these jobs pay very well,” she says.
While STEM technicians’ salaries may be higher compared with those of non-STEM occupations, most of these positions are not witnessing the same growth as jobs that require a bachelor’s degree and above, and they tend to pay less than jobs that require more education.
Among STEM technician jobs, Moncarz says the majority are experiencing slow growth, with mechanical engineering technicians expected to see a 5 percent increase in jobs by 2022; electro-mechanical technicians, 4 percent; civil engineering technicians, 1 percent; and both aerospace engineering/operation technicians and electrical/electronic engineering technicians, zero growth. One two-year degree occupation that is anticipated to grow, however, is Web developer, which is projected to increase 20 percent.
Renewable and sustainable energy is also experiencing increased demand, Moncarz says. Two related professions include wind turbine technician and solar photovoltaic installer, which require minimal schooling and are both projected to increase 24 percent from 2011 to 2022 — although their workforce representation is minuscule. In addition, Carter says she is seeing increased growth in the biofuel, battery, and hybrid car industries.
Smith believes the continued growth in STEM, and the subsequent demand for qualified workers, provides young people considering careers in those fields an advantage by giving them pathways to explore careers that both interest them and offer significant opportunities.
“You have to find a creative way of balancing your own interests with growing demand in your particular field,” she says. “Very often, you can see there are certain types of occupations that are recession-proof, where even during the worst of times … vacancies still popped up in a particular location or in a particular industry. Those are the ones, if you had to place your bets, [that] might be the best opportunity.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.