In the U.S., a 'hidden' economy for those without a university degree

In the U.S., a 'hidden' economy for those without a university degree

Summary: Well-paying science, technology, engineering or mathematics ("STEM") jobs aren't limited to those with a college degree, according to a new report.

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brookings-stem-study-june2013-chart01
Chart courtesy Brookings Institution

Fact: If you work in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, you will (on average!) make more than your peers.

Fact: About 20 percent of the jobs available in the United States—that's about 26 million—require a "high level of knowledge" in one of those fields.

Fact: Half of all these "STEM" jobs do not require a four-year college degree.

That last point is the key takeaway from a recent Brookings Institution study entitled "The Hidden STEM Economy," which surveyed U.S. workers to find out exactly what kinds of skills they needed to perform their jobs.

The head-slapping conclusion? STEM has a slight marketing problem, portrayed as a white collar realm occupied by only the most highly educated workers. The reality is more complex: there are plenty of well-paid blue collar STEM workers, too, and those jobs aren't disappearing overseas like other manufacturing and vocational jobs.

They're in a number of industries: utilities, professional services, construction, mining, manufacturing and healthcare. And they're centered in metropolitan hubs such as San Jose, Washington, Seattle and Boston.

brookings-stem-study-june2013-chart02
Chart courtesy Brookings Institution

But policy hasn't quite kept up, Brookings argues:

Many researchers have studied why there is a shortage of highly educated STEM workers. Reasons range from inadequate preparation, to too few choosing those fields of study, to low retention rates for STEM majors. A number of policies are designed to correct this problem. Less attention has been paid to why sub-bachelor's level STEM jobs are hard to fill. Further, public policies have focused almost entirely on four-year degree pathways, ignoring the many high-paying jobs in STEM fields that do not require as much formal education.

The U.S., of course, is famously lacking on the global stage with regard to educating its children in technical fields.

Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News looks at the issue through a Silicon Valley lens. Even though the vast majority (upwards of 72 percent) of Valley jobs require a bachelor's degree, those that don't still require a high level of technical proficiency:

For instance, technical writing employs thousands of people in well-paying Bay Area jobs, the report found. "You need skills that are specific to whatever their product or service is, to help the customer," said Daniel Doornbos, of San Jose, who writes user manuals for the data storage company Nimble Storage.

Some of the data points in the Brookings study are fascinating—for example, less than 10 percent of jobs in 1850 were STEM related, versus 20 percent today—and the geographic spread is somewhat surprising, too. (The least STEM-focused region of the U.S.? The Northeast.)

But it's the conclusion that resonates.

"The excessively professional definition of STEM jobs has led to missed opportunities to identify and support valuable training and career development at the federal level and weakened coordination between workforce development and education at the state and local levels," the authors write. "The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to a STEM career has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways through community colleges and even technical high schools."

Topics: Tech Industry, Education

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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7 comments
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  • Great article

    Community colleges offer many great technical programs in addition to those geared toward moving students on to 4-year institutions. In addition, they are both accessible and affordable relative to many colleges and unis. And, finally, they are under-rated.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Not the only problem with the US educational system.

    In the US, it is assumed that you MUST have a college degree to get ahead...but not in many other parts of the world. Many other countries have apprentice programs for many fields...sadly...those types of programs are looked down on in the US. Too bad.

    Anyone call a plumber recently? How about an electrician? Those are two occupations that pay VERY well...but do not require a college degree. And there are countless other "professions" that do not either. And let's face it kids...the ONLY reason most people have a job...is to earn money.

    College doesn't make people any SMARTER...it simply is a place to gain knowledge. Believe me I know. I work with some of the stupidest people on the planet at my university. They may be brilliant in their chosen field...but get them out of their element...and the vast majority are brain-dead.
    IT_Fella
    • IT_Fella: "College ... it simply is a place to gain knowledge"

      That's the least of it. Learning is a lifelong process with many twists and turns. Most disciplines do not stand still (and tech is a very good example of this). College not only teaches students how to learn, but gives them the tools necessary so that they can continue learning after leaving. In addition, research conducted at colleges/unis helps to increase the knowledge base. And many graduates, especially at the MS and PhD level, move on to research positions in industry (e.g., IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Exxon-Mobil, Merck) and government (e.g., U.S. NIH, U.S.G.S, U.S. DOE National Laboratories)

      That's not to say that a college diploma is necessary for one to have the ability to learn. Clearly, it's not. But, rather than tear down colleges, unis. professors and graduates, let's acknowledge and agree that Community Colleges have an important role to play in society.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • And, this, folks, is why were are toast as a nation:

    "The excessively professional definition of STEM jobs has led to missed opportunities to identify and support valuable training and career development at the federal level and weakened coordination between workforce development and education at the state and local levels."

    Why? Because it shows a person so conditioned that he thinks the only way a person can succeed is through the aid of a federal government program. It is a person who has totally lost his ability to care for himself; he can't even comprehend that he has the ability to care for himself. He can NOTHING unless the government does it for him. That, sir, is a mindset that will produce societal collapse.
    baggins_z
  • Many Employers Undervalue High Tech Military Training Also!!

    I'm one of the non-degreed STEM workers. I have worked in IT ever since I got out of the Navy nearly 30 years ago. I was a nuclear reactor operator on a fast attack sub with training as both an Electronics Technician and Reactor Operator plus more than 3 years experience in the fleet. If there was true equivalence, the business world would recognize my Navy training as equivalent to an Associates in Electronics Technology and probably a Bachelor of Applied Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology. Very few employers look at it that way. However, I have been continuously employed (minus the time I did pursue a four year degree) as a Systems Analyst, Network Administrator, and IS Manager (currently) with very little problem in landing a job. No one I've ever worked with in small or large corporations has ever questioned my credentials or abilities. In fact, the most common question I've received over the years is, "How many degrees do you have?"
    rslutz@...
  • I am one of those

    I have a high paying tech job as a major tech company and only have a HS diploma. You can't learn what i know and can do with systems in college.
    ammohunt
  • I too

    I too am lacking a degree but have been successful in IT for over 20 years.
    To me the biggest missed advantage here is that HR departments have used having a degree as a filter for just about all positions! That equates to plain laziness.

    Experience always should trump book knowledge.
    harrim47