Number of STEM College Degrees and Jobs on the Rise

June 19, 2014
By Sandra Jontz
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Here’s a little good news for students who not only are college-bound, but who want to or plan to study in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, according to a government watchdog report.

Both the number of degrees awarded, and the number of jobs in STEM fields, have increased over the past decade, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which studied STEM educational programs because of researchers' disagreement about whether there are enough STEM workers to meet employer demand.

The number of degrees awarded in STEM fields increased 55 percent, from 1.35 million in the 2002-2003 academic year, to more than 2 million in the 2011-2012 academic year, reads the GAO report. Since 2004, the number of STEM jobs increased 16 percent from 14.2 million to 16.5 million jobs in 2012. The number of degrees awarded in non-STEM-related fields increased by 37 percent over the time frame, however the growth for non-STEM jobs remaining fairly steady.

Among core STEM fields of physical sciences, life sciences and mathematics, the number of degrees awarded grew at a greater rate than non-STEM fields and degrees in engineering also increased, but at a slightly lower rate than non-STEM fields. "Overall, employment trends have generally been more favorable in STEM occupations than in non-STEM occupations," the report reads. STEM occupations also reported more wage growth on average and lower unemployment rates than non-STEM occupations. And while employment conditions varied across the related STEM fields, health care occupations generally reported the most favorable working conditions.

While the numbers seem to indicate a positive trend, the recession that began in 2011 and led to a weakened economy and high unemployment rates could slightly skew the GAO’s findings. “It is difficult to know if the number of STEM graduates are aligned with work force needs, in part because demand for STEM workers fluctuates. For example, the number of jobs in core STEM fields, including engineering and information technology, declined during the recession but has grown substantially since then,” reads a portion of the GAO report.

Some experts have maintained that the United States has a sufficient supply of STEM workers, while other researchers say they have found that “the educational system is not producing enough STEM graduates to fill the jobs available in STEM occupations or in the increasing number of jobs in other fields that may require STEM competencies (such as analytical skills),” reads a portion of a letter from GAO investigators to members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“The current administration maintains that a strong educational pipeline creating future STEM workers is important to ensure that the United States remains competitive with other highly technological nations,” the letter to lawmakers reads.

For the study, GAO surveyed 124 federal postsecondary STEM education programs. Almost all reported that they “considered work force needs in some way,” meaning that one objective of their programs was to prepare students for STEM careers. In addition to the federal programs, the GAO surveyed 30 kindergarten through 12th grade STEM education programs, of which almost all reported efforts to prepare students for college-level STEM education. GAO investigators analyzed data from three federal data sources: the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. GAO investigators also conducted in-depth reviews, including interviews with federal officials and grantees.

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