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Lack of Diverse STEM Workforce a Challenge for States, U.S.

The U.S. no longer leads the world in all areas of science, the National Science Foundation says, and many states have low concentrations of STEM workers.

A Florida high school student works in a lab internship. The National Science Board has called for the number of women working in STEM jobs to double.
A new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) finds that the U.S. is no longer the world leader in key measures of scientific accomplishment such as awarded patents and published papers. The greatest intensity of research and development efforts, says the 2022 edition of The State of U.S. Science and Engineering, is shifting to countries in East-Southeast and South Asia.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan characterized these findings as a defining moment for the country at a briefing on the report, highlighting the importance of accessing talent and ideas “from across the socioeconomic spectrum, geography and diversity.”

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers currently make up almost a quarter of America’s labor force. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between now and 2030, jobs that require STEM skills will grow at a faster rate than other jobs.
STEM jobs are projected to grow at a greater rate than other jobs; median salaries are more than twice as large.

Women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in this segment of the labor force. According to the National Science Board (NSB), the number of women and Black workers in it must double, and the number of Latinos triple, for it to reflect the true demographics of the country.

Elementary and secondary math and science education, largely under state control, is the pathway to these jobs. Student performance in these subjects has not improved significantly since 2003, notes NSF, and American students currently rank 25th out of 37 OCED countries in mathematics literacy.

The current situation reflects a log jam with respect to access to academic programs in the very areas where the country needs expertise the most, says Jenn Capps, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Cal Poly Humboldt. “Engineering, cybersecurity and data science to name a few.”

Worker Concentrations

For the first time, the NSF indicators report broadened its accounting of the STEM workforce to include workers in jobs that require STEM knowledge and technical skills but might not require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Viewed in this way, STEM workers make up nearly a quarter of the workforce. However, in about half of the states in the U.S., including some of the most populous, concentrations are much lower (see map). This can hinder local economies; a Berkeley economic researcher estimated that each skilled job added in a city generates 2.5 new jobs in goods and services.

STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree, referred to as the “skilled technical workforce” (STW), are highly concentrated in the medical, construction and manufacturing industries. Academic institutions are the primary employers of STEM workers with Ph.D.s, but the share working at for-profit businesses is increasing.

Foreign-born workers, many from Asia, account for almost half of all STEM workers with doctoral degrees. First-time enrollment of international students in U.S. graduate schools has dropped in recent years. Moreover, as a result of immigration and travel restrictions implemented since early 2020, two million fewer working-age immigrants came to the U.S. than would have otherwise, half of whom would have been college graduates with a predilection for STEM jobs.

Closing Gaps

Whites hold more than 60 percent of STEM jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. Latinos (7.7 percent) and Blacks (7.1 percent) are both represented well below their presence in the population at large. This is not likely to change in the short run; an analysis by the Pew Research Center found that a smaller share of Black and Hispanic students are earning degrees in STEM than in other programs.

According to the Department of Labor, 78 percent of new workers joining the workforce between 2020 and 2030 will be Hispanic. NSB estimates that more than a million Latino workers need to be added to the STEM workforce by 2030 to achieve equitable participation. But several states with large Hispanic populations — including Texas, Florida, Arizona and New York — currently have low concentrations of these workers.

Cal Poly Humboldt, which serves a student population that is over 30 percent Hispanic, announced its transition to a polytechnic university this week. The change comes with a $458 million investment from the state to address the need for STEM workers.

Capp sees an opportunity to develop programs that can work in other states. The university employs a "science serving society" approach to STEM education that has proved to be appealing to diverse students, using science to solve real-world problems facing communities. It seeks to "be a different kind of polytechnic, defining ourselves by who we include not who we exclude," she says, a perspective that could serve the urgent need to create a larger, more diverse STEM workforce well.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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