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Number of U.S. STEM Graduates Grows, But Workforce Skills Not Keeping Pace with Demand

July 10, 2014

STEM degrees lead to higher salaries and more employment opportunities than other degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Despite these economic advantages, only 16 percent of 2008 graduates received a STEM degree. The lack of workers with STEM skills has created a difficult hiring environment for many U.S. firms. A recent Brookings Institution study reveals that the lack of STEM graduates has meant that STEM job postings take twice as long to fill as other postings.

An NCES survey of 2008 bachelor’s degree recipients found that, as of 2012, 5 percent of STEM graduates were unemployed, compared to 7.1 percent of other graduates. STEM graduates also were  more likely to be employed full-time, to have just one job and to have spent fewer total months unemployed. Average salary for STEM graduates was $65,000, compared to $44,500 for other respondents.

Download the National Center for Educational Statistics report Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On

Based on the NCES data, which reflects a decades-long trend toward an economy that favors STEM credentials, one might expect the number of STEM graduates to increase to meet the demands of the market. Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution, however, finds the skills needed in STEM occupations remain in short supply in the U.S. labor market. Rothwell measured the difficulty of hiring for different types of positions in the U.S. by cataloging the time required to fill them. The mean duration to fill a STEM vacancy is twice as long as for other vacancies, and even longer for advanced degrees and postings requiring particular skill sets. Jobs requiring computer skills, such as data visualization, natural language processing and iOS and Android development, drew the longest posting times. As a result, these skills appear to bring the largest increases in average salary.

Rothwell concludes that, to some extent, there is a shortage of workers with the STEM skills needed by U.S. companies. The actual size of the skills gap is difficult to determine since posting duration varies considerably by specific field and metropolitan area. Despite this need for more data, it is clear that there is a significant need to prepare greater numbers of workers for STEM positions at the post-secondary/sub-bachelor’s degree level. These positions, including nurses, repair workers and technicians, remain in high demand across the country.

Download the Brookings Institution’s Still Searching: Job Vacancies and STEM Skills

In another recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) demonstrates the difficulty in trying to design a policy solution to the skills gap. The number of degrees awarded in STEM fields grew by 55 percent between 2002 and 2011. In comparison, non-STEM degrees grew by only 37 percent. However, as the Rothwell study suggests, gaps remain. In fact, professional STEM vacancies now take longer to fill than before the recession. These trends suggest that the number of STEM graduates has not kept pace with the growth in STEM jobs. The GAO report stops short of that conclusion because it is not clear that there is an absolute shortage of STEM workers, only a lack of workers in the particular fields and regions that are hiring.

GAO concludes that there is no easy way to determine the extent of the STEM workforce gap. Demand in various STEM fields fluctuates so rapidly that it is difficult to craft effective programs that serve the needs of both workers and employers.

Download the GAO report Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education: Assessing the Relationship Between Education and the Workforce

stats, stem, workforce