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

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

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.

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."