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Science and Engineering Labor

September 3, 2015

Monday, September 7, 2015, is the Labor Day holiday in the US. Tikalon, like most others, will be on holiday that day, and it's a good time to reflect on current and projected science and engineering employment in the US.

The first order of business is to define who qualifies as a person working in a science or engineering job. A report,[1] published earlier this year by the National Science Board, defines a member of the science and engineering (S&E) workforce as follows:
• Any individual with at least a bachelor's degree in an S&E or S&E-related field of study.
• Any college graduate employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation, regardless of field of degree.
• Any college graduate employed in an S&E or S&E-related occupation, regardless of field of degree, as indicated by the following job descriptions:
• Computer and mathematical scientists.
• Biological, agricultural, and environmental life scientists.
• Physical scientists (e.g., physicists, chemists, geoscientists).
• Social scientists (e.g., psychologists, economists, sociologists).
• Engineers.
• Postsecondary teachers in S&E fields.

There are some occupations that are not S&E, per se, but they are closely related. These include the following:
• Health care workers (e.g., physicians, audiologists, nurses).
• S&E managers (e.g., engineering managers).
• Science and engineering precollege teachers (e.g., science teachers, math teachers).
• Technologists and technicians in S&E.
• Other S&E-related occupations (e.g., actuaries, architects).

The following table shows how many S&E degree-holders actually work in S&E or S&E-related fields. Interestingly, a majority of people with S&E degrees do not work in S&E, and quite a few people without S&E credentials work in S&E (2010 data from Ref. 1).[1]

 Field of
Highest Degree
S&E-Related (%)Non-S&E (%)

Some S&E degree-holders, notably entrepreneurs, prefer to work in non-S&E fields. One of my graduate school colleagues got his Ph.D., but decided to start a camera shop. There are others, however, who would enjoy working in their chosen field, but are forced to work elsewhere. As the following graph of data for 1993-2010 shows, this has been an historically high percentage for all except engineers.[1]

Percentage of scientists and engineers working involuntarily out-of-field
Percentage of scientists and engineers working involuntarily out-of-field. (Graphed using Gnumeric from data in Ref. 1.)[1]

S&E occupations are generally rare career choices for women, but statistics have shown a trend towards a greater number of women in the workforce. The workforce percentage of college-educated women increased from 42.6% to 49.2% from 1993-2010, while the percentage of working women with an S&E bachelor's degree increased from 32.3% to 37.6%. The percentage of working women with a master's degree increased from 31.7% to 38.4%, while the percentage with doctorates increased from 20.4% to 30.3%.[1] The following graph shows the trend by occupation.[1]

Proportion of women in the S&E workforce by occupation.
Proportion of women in the S&E workforce by occupation in 2013 (red) and 1993 (blue). (Graphed using Gnumeric from data in Ref. 1.)[1]

As everyone has noticed, computers, consumer electronics, and associated technologies such as the Internet, have become a large part of our lives. This is reflected in the current breakdown of S&E employment, as shown in the following figure.[2] My fellow physical scientists are just 4% of the newly-hired S&E crowd. Engineers and computer specialists clearly dominate.

Figure captionA snapshot of S&E employment for 2012.[2]

(Click for larger image.)

Employment in the physical sciences is expected to grow, while computing and engineering are expected to remain stable. Mathematics is expected to become more important, while the need for managers will decline (see figure).[2]

Figure captionProjected S&E job openings, job growth plus net replacement needs, 2012-2022.[2]

(Click for larger image.)

I can't write about engineering employment without mentioning the controversy about the "scarcity" of engineers. For many decades, corporations have claimed that the US needs more engineers, while unemployed engineers have been left wondering why they haven't been hired. Many believe that this is a ploy on the part of corporations to create an oversupply of engineers; and, according to the economic principle of "supply-and-demand," this oversupply leads to lower wages.

In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, demographer, Michael Teitelbaum, wrote,
"The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering workforce."[3]

Teitelbaum cites the high unemployment rates in engineering and computer science, occupations for which shortages are claimed. He further describes the plight of biomedical researchers, who must spend long years of study to labor in a heavily financed scientific field where remuneration is relatively low.[3] He further cites the trend towards "outsourcing" of US engineering jobs to temporary workers in other countries.[3]

As Teitelbaum writes in summary,
"Ironically the vigorous claims of shortages concern occupations in science and engineering, yet manage to ignore or reject most of the science-based evidence on the subject."[3]


  1. Revisiting The Stem Workforce - A Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, National Science Board, February 4, 2015 (8 MB PDF File).
  2. John F. Sargent Jr., "The U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce: Recent, Current, and Projected Employment, Wages, and Unemployment," Congressional Research Service Report R43061, February 19, 2014 (0.6 MB PDF File).
  3. Michael S. Teitelbaum, "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage, The Atlantic, March 19, 2014.

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