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Is every job a STEM job?

March 05, 2020

STEM and the American Workforce, a new report backed mostly by science associations, points to STEM jobs as one-third of direct employment, two-thirds of total employment, and 69 percent of America’s GDP. The authors highlight that 60 percent of STEM jobs are filled by people without bachelor’s degrees. Those are eye-popping numbers until one starts to dig into what the report considers a STEM job, which were decided on a case-by-case basis according to the occupation’s sector and educational requirements. This is not the only recent STEM employment study to take an expansive view of the field. Earlier this year, the Idaho STEM Action Center reported that the number of unfilled STEM jobs in the state had doubled, to 7,633, in just three years. Digging into the state labor agency’s data indicates that a large portion of these openings are in healthcare, with the plurality of openings seeking registered nurses.

As far as basic political calculus goes, the motivation behind the expansive view of STEM taken by these reports, and others, is clear: increase the number of stakeholders who feel relevant to STEM employment so that there will be more support to increase the investments made into STEM initiatives.

The hidden assumptions within this political calculus, however, may cause challenges for current STEM proponents over the long run. If STEM affects most jobs — and if you take a broad view of STEM earnestly, it is not difficult to make the case that science, technology, engineering and math affect every job — then any additional resources provided for STEM initiatives become easy to assign in the same way that investments in general workforce initiatives are assigned.

To a degree, this evolution from a more specific STEM advocacy effort, focused largely around coding, engineering, and lab research, into a more generalist movement, is emblematic of the typical development of issue campaigns. Nonetheless, proponents of STEM initiatives should take care to be clear about exactly what they are advocating and why.

If the goal of your STEM advocacy is to support investments in education and training for high-impact fields that do not already receive substantial attention from workforce boards (such as nursing); provide average salaries in the mid-six digits (such as medical doctors); or, fields that pay mediocre wages (such as credit authorizers), then an expansive definition of STEM may set up false expectations for your prospective funders, as well as your advocacy partners.

stem, workforce