Management & Labor

Are STEM Graduates Really Having Trouble Finding Jobs?

A recent Census report suggested many STEM grads don't work in STEM occupations.
by | July 28, 2014
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Policymakers have focused much attention in recent years on increasing the number of workers with training in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

While this group makes up a relatively small share of the nation’s workforce, many policy analysts view them as a key component to improving the economy. In 2005 a coalition of groups issued a study stating U.S. higher education institutions needed to double the number of STEM graduates. Business leaders also frequently cite a shortage of STEM grads. Last year a letter signed by CEOs called on President Barack Obama and Congress to grant additional visas for high-skilled immigrants to help fill job openings.

But a Census Bureau report published earlier this month indicates something different. The analysis of American Community Survey data found that a surprising 74 percent of STEM graduates did not have STEM jobs. The findings, widely reported in the media (see here and here), gave credence to claims that there's a surplus of U.S. workers with STEM training.

To understand why the estimate was so high, let's take a look at how the Census computed the figures.

For one, the federal government's definition for STEM encompasses a few degree fields that some might not consider STEM. The table below shows a detailed breakdown of percentages for various employed graduates working in STEM occupations. (All fields, with the exception of the last three listed, are considered STEM degrees in the Census survey. The Census Bureau reported 12.4 percent of employed workers with bachelor’s degrees in all disciplines held STEM jobs.)

Degree Field Percent of graduates working in STEM Number of STEM workers Margin of Error
Computers, mathematics, and statistics 49.2 964,090 17,734
Engineering 49.5 1,652,305 21,613
Physical and related sciences 26.4 341,275 8,301
Biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences 14.7 404,570 9,440
Psychology 9.5 188,990 6,791
Social sciences 7.2 228,995 7,314
Multidisciplinary studies 8.2 22,445 2,402
Other Science- and engineering-related 6.0 235,985 6,976
Business (non-STEM) 6.5 591,560 12,974
Education (non-STEM) 1.8 81,330 4,785
Arts, humanities, and other (non-STEM) 5.0 459,870 11,566
Figures are for employed civilians age 25 to 64. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 American Community Survey.

Many are quick to point out that those with psychology or social science degrees, considered STEM degrees in the Census survey, don’t typically intend to work in the field, as reflected in their lower percentages. The debate over how to define STEM workers has served as a major point of contention for years. Some even argue there’s no reason to apply any STEM label at all.

Another explanation for the large share of workers employed outside of STEM is that the estimate doesn’t include what the Census Bureau considers “STEM-related” occupations. This large segment of the workforce, which includes health care, comprises roughly the same number of jobs as STEM employment. While these workers don’t hold traditional STEM positions, their jobs often require similar skills.

It’s also important to note that the Census data reflects not just recent grads, but all employed workers age 25 to 64. Many of those surveyed earned STEM degrees decades ago, opting to change fields at a later point in their careers. For some, the decision may have been unrelated to any difficulties in finding a job in the field.

For all these reasons, the reported figures shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that a majority of STEM grads can't find jobs in their degree fields.

For another take on the issue, consider a longitudinal analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that tracked employment outcomes of students who completed bachelor’s degrees during the 2007-2008 academic year. One year after graduation, NCES asked employed graduates whether they considered their current job related to their undergraduate major.

As shown, the results suggest a much different outlook for STEM graduate employment than what some concluded from the Census report. A mere 18.8 percent of STEM grads felt their job wasn’t related to their major, compared to 27.5 percent for all bachelor’s degree recipients. In fact, STEM grads were more likely to land jobs in their degree fields than all other graduates with the exception of education and health care – two very specialized fields.

Bonnie Dunbar, director of the University of Houston STEM Center, said she continues to see a STEM labor shortage, attributable in part to poor math course offerings by inner-city high schools. Many students, she said, don’t think they need math classes. Others don’t become interested in STEM occupations until later in their academic careers, when they’re far behind on needed coursework.

“When companies get engineers from India and China, it’s because we don’t have a local supply,” Dunbar said.

Of all college graduates, only law degree recipients reported higher median earnings than those with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, according to Census estimates. Similarly, STEM grads are also employed at higher rates than their peers.

Still, a portion of them do end up working in occupations outside of STEM. The NCES study found that nearly 19 percent of STEM graduates held management, support or administrative assistance positions in the business sector. Here’s another table showing Census estimates for the top occupations among science and engineering graduates who work outside of STEM:

Occupation Estimated workers
Managers, all other 692,000
Physicians 594,200
Postsecondary teachers 522,100
Lawyers 442,900
Elementary and middle school teachers 425,100
Chief executives 220,400
Social workers 218,700
Management analysts 214,300
Counselors 204,100
Accountants and auditors 194,000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey.

While the Census and NCES studies only examined bachelor's degree recipients, it's also important to consider that many STEM and STEM-related jobs don’t require four-year or advanced degrees. Consider the construction and manufacturing industries, for instance. In fact, the Brookings Institution estimates about half of STEM jobs are available to workers without bachelor's degrees.

Of the larger metro areas, STEM jobs account for the highest share of total employment in San Jose and Washington, D.C. STEM jobs not requiring four-year degrees are most prevalent in places like Baton Rouge and Birmingham, according to the Brookings analysis.

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