Fact Sheet 2016
Professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields stand at the forefront of innovation in the U.S. economy. As technological changes reshape the world of work, these professionals are consistently in demand. However, some STEM occupations are struggling, especially in the natural sciences and some engineering professions. This fact sheet will outline the employment and earning trends in STEM occupations; unionization in STEM fields; the location of STEM jobs; gender, race, and ethnicity in STEM; and the challenges offshoring and U.S. guest worker visa programs pose for U.S. STEM workers.
Employment and Unemployment in STEM Occupations
- In 2015, computer and mathematical occupations employed 4,369,000 workers, while architecture and engineering occupations employed 2,954,000 workers and 1,404,000 professionals were employed in life, physical, and social science occupations. Together they accounted for 15.1 percent of the professional labor force and 5.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce.
- Computer and mathematical-related occupations are driving growth among STEM occupations. From 2005 to 2015, computer and mathematical-related occupations accounted for 79.5 percent of job growth in STEM occupations. From 2005 to 2015, architecture and engineering occupations added 161,000 jobs while life, physical, and social science occupations added 129,000 jobs. At the same time, computer and mathematical occupations added 1,123,000 jobs.
- Unemployment rates for STEM workers remains below the national average, but is in line with the unemployment rate for all professional and related workers. As the chart below shows, STEM unemployment rates have just barely returned to their pre-recession levels.
- Employment growth within the STEM field varies dramatically by occupation. From 2005-2015:
- Employment of computer programmers declined by 17.4 percent;
- Employment of aerospace engineers grew by 53 percent;
- Employment of electrical and electronics engineers decreased by 14 percent;
- The number of drafters decreased by over 37 percent;
- Among the natural sciences, the number of biologists decreased by 28 percent while the number of chemists and material scientist decreased by about 15 percent.
- Medical scientists continued to see strong job growth, increasing 26 percent and adding a net 32,000 jobs over that period.
- In 2010, recovery from the 2008 downturn started to take hold in many STEM occupations.
- Unemployment in professional and related occupations decreased from 4.5 percent in 2010 to 2.6 percent in 2015.
- Computer and mathematical occupations added 838,000 jobs between from 2010 and 2015.
- Architecture and engineering occupations added 335,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015, growing 12.8 percent. However, between 2008 and 2010, over 300,000 architecture and engineering jobs were lost.
- Life, physical, and social science occupations have struggled to recover. Although the unemployment rate for life, physical, and social science occupations is similar to other STEM occupations, there were 5,000 fewer jobs in this sector than there were five years ago.
Mean Annual Earnings in 2015
Professionals in STEM occupations typically have higher average salaries than other workers. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that STEM jobs generally enjoy a wage premium over non-STEM jobs, reporting that those employed in the former earn 26 percent more than those employed in the latter. However, this premium diminishes when controlling for level of education attainment.
Mean annual earnings in 2015 were generally higher for STEM jobs than non-STEM professional or related occupations, which averaged $67,500 in 2015; however, within each STEM field there was wide variation.
- In computer and mathematical jobs the mean annual wage was $86,170 in 2015; computer and information research scientists were at the top end of the wage range ($115,580) while computer support specialists earned a mean of $52,430 or $67,260 depending on the type of computer support provided (user or network).
- Mean annual earnings for engineers in 2015 ranged from $78,490 for agricultural engineers at the low end of the pay scale to $149,590 for petroleum engineers at the high end of the pay scale. Engineering technicians earned a mean annual salary of between $51,170 for environmental engineering technicians and $68,620 for aerospace engineering and operations technicians.
- Life, physical, and social scientists had the lowest mean annual earnings of the three STEM sectors ($71,220 in 2015). Science technician earnings were below the average of all STEM professionals with forest and conservation technicians earning just $38,260 in 2015 and nuclear technicians at the high end of the scale earning a mean annual wage of $78,850 in 2015.
Education attainment in STEM occupations was high in 2016. Among all STEM occupations, 73 percent of professionals held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Life, physical, and social scientists had the highest education attainment with 98 percent of social scientists and 94 percent of life and physical scientists having earned at least a bachelor’s degree in the first quarter of 2016. Engineers had higher education attainment, with 89 percent having completed an associate’s degree or higher in the first quarter of 2016.
Among technical occupations, the education attainment was lower, which reflects the skills needed to perform the work. Most technicians had completed schooling beyond a high school diploma. Among them, 50 percent had completed at least an associate’s degree.
STEM Graduation Rates
The supply of new STEM graduates is robust. In academic year 2011-12, bachelor’s degrees were conferred to 565,448 U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduates in science and engineering programs. Also in academic year 2011-12, master’s degrees were awarded to 94,859 U.S. citizens and permanent residents in the sciences and 25,567 master’s degrees were conferred in engineering. Nearly 22,300 doctorate degrees were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduates in academic year 2011-12 in science and engineering fields.
Union Membership and the Union Advantage
Union members generally have higher wages, better benefits, and more stable working conditions. In 2015, 16.8 percent of professional and related workers were members of unions. STEM occupations generally had a lower rate of unionization.
- In 2015, 8.3 percent of professionals employed in life, physical, or social science related occupations were union members; 6.8 percent of professionals in architecture and engineering occupations were union members; and 3.9 percent of professionals in computer and mathematical occupation were union members.
- In 2015, psychologists (18.9 percent) and urban and regional planners (18.5 percent) had the highest rate of union membership among those in life, physical, and social science occupations. Among engineers, locomotive engineers and operators (77.5 percent), aircraft pilots and flight engineers (55.3 percent), and marine and naval engineers (42.3 percent) had the highest rates of union membership. In computer and mathematical fields, computer support specialists (6.2 percent) and operations research analysts (10.2 percent) had the highest rates of unionization.
- In 2015, unionization had a strong effect on wages for lower-paid STEM workers. Among engineering technicians other than drafters, unionized workers earned an average of $30.99 an hour, compared to an average hourly wage of $22.82 for non-unionized workers. Similarly, for computer support specialists, unionized workers earned $30.73 an hour compared to $28.72 an hour for non-unionized workers.
- Median weekly wages for full-time and salaried workers in life, physical, and social science fields were higher in 2015 for unionized ($1,249) than non-unionized ($1,187) employees.
- While computer and mathematical and architecture and engineering occupations generally report higher wages amongst non-union workers, there is evidence to suggest unionized workers enjoy an hourly premium. Unionized STEM workers typically report more reasonable working hours relative to their non-unionized counterparts.
Location Matters in STEM Employment
There are regional differences in the number of STEM field occupations available. Across states, employment in STEM fields ranged from a low of 3.2 percent of the total labor force in Mississippi to 9.2 percent of the total labor force in Washington State. Population density and local industry influence the number and type of jobs available in a given area. Often, regions with federal research or contracting installations tend to have a larger number of people employed in STEM occupations.
According to a 2011 comprehensive analysis of the STEM workforce:
- California employs more than 13 percent of the U.S. STEM workforce (just over one million jobs). However, it lost 19,000 STEM jobs in the last decade (a 1.75 percent decline). The largest number of STEM jobs in California were in Los Angeles County (more than 235,000).
- Washington, D.C. has more than two times the concentration of STEM jobs than the national average. Fairfax and Arlington counties—counties interconnected to D.C.’s economy—have helped Virginia expand its presence of STEM-related workers, on a per-capita basis, more than any other state in the last decade. Washington State, Seattle in particular, experienced the second fastest growth.
- The two counties in the U.S. with the most STEM workers per capita — Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Butte, Idaho — are home to major Department of Energy national laboratories.
Women, Black, and Hispanic Workers in STEM: Underpaid and Underrepresented
In STEM, there is under-representation of women and minorities; where minorities and women are employed they are often concentrated in lower-paying technical occupations.
- While women made up 57.2 percent of all professional workers in 2015, they only comprised 46.6 percent of science professionals, 24.7 percent of computer and math professionals, and 15.1 percent of engineering and architecture professionals. 
- Women’s participation in computer and mathematics and life, physical, and social science occupations decreased from 2005–2015. However, women made gains in the architecture and engineering occupations between 2005 and 2015, increasing to 15.1 percent of the labor force from 13.8 in 2005.
- In 2015, the biological sciences represented women more proportionately than other STEM occupations where they were 54.9 percent of all workers. However, women accounted for only 27.5 percent of environmental scientists. In psychology there was an over representation of women; about seven in 10 psychologists were women, yet median weekly earnings for women was $1,189 while the average for men and women was $1,367 (the average just for men was not available). Thus, male psychologists earned at least 15 percent more than their female colleagues in 2015.
- In every STEM occupation for which there is available data, the median weekly earnings for men were 16-26 percent higher than they were for women in 2015.
- Overall, women employed in professional and related occupations earned 72 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts in 2015.
- Black professionals represented 9.8 percent of the professional workforce and Hispanic professionals only 8.8 percent. Hispanic workers were 16.4 percent of the labor force in 2015 and Black workers comprised 11.7 percent of the labor force.
- In computer and mathematical occupations, 8.6 percent of workers were Black or African American, 6.8 were Hispanic or Latino, but 19.9 percent were Asian. Asians were just 8.7 percent of the professional workforce and 5.8 percent of the total workforce in 2015.
- In the life, physical, and social sciences, Black professionals were under-represented, making up 6.1 percent of the workforce, and in architecture and engineering occupations, Black professionals were just six percent of the workforce in 2015.
- Workers of Hispanic origin comprised 8.2 percent of the architecture and engineering field and seven percent of life, physical, and social scientists.
- Black professionals were more proportionally represented in relatively lower-paying support or technician positions. They held 8.6 percent of engineering technician positions in 2015 and represented 12.6 percent of computer support personnel.
- Hispanic workers were also more proportionally represented in technician and technologist occupations, at 9.7 percent of engineering technicians and 10 percent of miscellaneous life, physical, and social science technicians in 2015. Among scientists, the highest proportion of Hispanics worked as chemical technicians (9.7 percent).
Asians reported the highest average earnings in each of the three STEM occupation sectors. Non-Hispanic Whites also had above average earnings, while Black and Hispanic or Latino professionals earned below average wages in 2014.
When income data from technician occupations were removed from the earning averages, Black and Hispanic or Latino STEM professionals still earned thousands of dollars less than White and Asian STEM professionals in 2014.
Offshoring and Immigration Policy Challenges U.S. STEM Workers
The U.S. government makes available an array of skilled worker visas, including the H-1B, L, O, E3, and TN to employers seeking guest workers. In just FY 2015, nearly 531,000 guest worker visas were issued to employers for categories H-1B, L-1, optional practical training, O, TN (NAFTA professional), and E3 workers (Australian professionals).
- Although skilled guest workers make up a very small percentage of the overall U.S. workforce, they are disproportionately concentrated in STEM industries. Among all STEM workers, 11.3 percent were not U.S. citizens in April 2016, (over 1,000,000 workers). In computer and mathematical occupations, 13.8 percent of workers were not citizens. In life, physical, and social science occupations, 11.3 percent were not U.S. citizens. Among architects and engineers, 6.6 percent of the workforce were not U.S. citizens.
- Tech industry lobbyists often claim that the visas make it possible to bring in the “best and brightest” workers to combat shortages of U.S. workers in STEM industries. Yet, there is no labor market test to ensure that unscrupulous employers do not replace U.S. professionals with temporary guest workers. According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “no one who has come to the question with an open mind has been able to find any objective data suggesting general ‘shortages’ of scientists and engineers.” Labor market indicators do not demonstrate a supply shortage and the evidence suggesting a need for more H-1B workers is anecdotal.  Estimates indicate that close to 50 percent of STEM graduates in the U.S. are not hired in STEM-related fields, suggesting the claims of a shortage in STEM is largely rhetorical and not supported by the data.
- Despite the provisions stating that H-1B visa beneficiaries must receive the prevailing wage, guest workers generally make less than their U.S. counterparts. As far back as 2001, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering warned the “size of the H-1B workforce relative to the overall number of IT professionals is large enough to keep wages from rising as fast as might be expected in a tight labor market.” The Academy’s warning bears true in current wage data.
- From 2005 to 2015, the median hourly earnings for operations research analysts increased from $32.84 to $37.80. After adjusting for inflation this represents a five percent decrease in buying power. 
- Similarly, for computer programmers, the median hourly wage increased from $30.49 in 2005 to $38.24 in 2015, which, after adjusting for inflation, represents a three percent decrease in buying power.
- A 2009 study from the Council on Foreign Relations shows that H-1B admissions at current levels are associated with about a five to six percent drop in wages for computer programmers and systems analysts.
- In 2011, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reported that engineering wages grew more slowly over the last three decades than any other occupational category, only 18 percent.
The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO supports comprehensive immigration reform to combat this trend, especially the creation of an independent commission that would ensure foreign and domestic workers fair access to jobs and protection from employer abuse. For more information on guest worker programs and professional and technical workers, see DPE’s 2012 publication “Gaming the System” (https://dpeaflcio.org/wp-content/uploads/Gaming-the-System-2012-Revised.pdf).
For more information on professional and technical workers, check DPE’s website: www.dpeaflcio.org.
The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) comprises 22 AFL-CIO unions representing over four million people working in professional and technical occupations. DPE-affiliated unions represent: teachers, college professors, and school administrators; library workers; nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals; engineers, scientists, and IT workers; journalists and writers, broadcast technicians and communications specialists; performing and visual artists; professional athletes; professional firefighters; psychologists, social workers, and many others. DPE was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 1977 in recognition of the rapidly growing professional and technical occupations.
DPE Research Department
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(202) 638-0320 extension 114
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