Report highlights STEM workers who often go ignored

June 10, 2013

Here’s what we’re reading/watching today:

Workers are seen at the construction of a new apartment housing complex in Trenton, N.J. in this Wednesday, April 24, 2013, photo. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Workers are seen at the construction of a new apartment housing complex in Trenton, N.J. in this April 24, 2013, photo. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

1) Individuals without a bachelor’s degree are playing a larger role in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce than you might think. According to a report released Monday, this population is going largely overlooked by lawmakers, due to the prevailing and “excessively professional” definition of the STEM workforce, which has led to “missed opportunities” for “valuable training and career development.”

The report “The Hidden STEM Economy” by Brookings senior research associate and associate fellow Jonathan Rothwell, finds that STEM jobs now make up 20 percent of all U.S. jobs—a share that has doubled since the Industrial Revolution. Half of those jobs are available to people who do not have a college degree, and they pay on average $53,000—10 percent more than jobs with a similar education requirement. These types of STEM jobs are predominantly in the health care, construction or manufacturing industries, while 12 percent of STEM occupations are in installation, repair and maintenance, the study finds.

But it’s the limited definition of STEM occupations that has generated this hidden STEM economy—one where individuals without an undergraduate degree go all but ignored by policymakers. Rothwell finds that only one-fifth of the $4.3 billion the federal government spends every year on STEM education and training goes toward training those with less than a bachelor’s degree. Twice that amount goes to training people with a bachelor’s degree or higher in STEM fields.

“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. This neglect is all the more nonsensical given that roughly half of students who earn four-year STEM degrees start their education at community colleges. … It is difficult to argue, given all the attention it has received, that STEM knowledge is underappreciated [sic]. Yet, because the focus has been on professional STEM jobs, a number of potentially useful interventions have been ignored. In this sense, jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree represent a hidden and unheralded STEM economy.”

And these STEM jobs are proving beneficial to the nation’s economy. Rothwell finds that the presence of STEM jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree improve a metropolitan area’s overall economic performance:

“The presence of sub-bachelor’s degree STEM workers helps boost innovation measures one-fourth to one-half as much as bachelor’s degree STEM workers, holding other factors constant. Concentrations of these jobs are also associated with less income inequality.”

Of the large metro areas, the study finds that Washington, D.C. and San Jose, Calif. have “the most STEM-based economies,” while Baton Rouge, La., Birmingham, Ala., and Wichita, Kan. “have among the largest share of STEM jobs in fields that do not require four-year college degrees.”

The report also comes as lawmakers continue to debate immigration reform, which includes policies relating to highly-skilled immigrants in STEM fields. The report’s findings relating to this population are in line with previous studies, showing that foreign-born workers are more likely to work in “super-STEM” occupations—jobs that require an education level well above average:

“At 18 percent, foreign-born workers are only slightly more likely to work in super-STEM jobs than their share of the workforce (16 percent) would suggest. Yet, the foreign-born share is particularly large for super-STEM jobs that require a PhD or other professional degree, as other studies have revealed. Blacks and Hispanics are generally underrepresented in STEM jobs.”

Rothwell’s findings highlight an important bias in terms of understanding the full nature of the STEM economy and the policy needs as it relates to workforce training and education.

2) The W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced an investment in group health insurance company SeeChange Health on Monday. SeeChange was named by Fast Company as one of the “world’s 50 most innovative companies” this year. The company offers employees rewards for actions taken to monitor and improve their health in an effort to increase overall wellness and lower health insurance costs. The foundation has allocated $100 million to its Mission Driven Investment program, from which the $2 million in direct equity for SeeChange was drawn. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is worth roughly $7.3 billion in total.

3) Two companies are teaming up to create a suit for extreme skydivers that will allow the thrill seekers to fall from just outside of the earth’s atmosphere in a controlled descent. Leah Gonzalez writes for PSFK that Solar Systems Express is partnering with IT company Juxtopia to create the RL Mark VI suit, which is a bit Iron Man-meets-Felix Baumgartner. The suit would have a heads-up display and be able to withstand severe pressure and temperature changes. Don’t get too excited, though. The technology is a ways off. Developers are hoping to test the suit using a robot in 2016. Gizmag’s Colin Dunjohn has a nice write-up on the science fiction influences and the challenges of creating this daredevil wardrobe addition.

4) Director J.J. Abrams is headed to London to begin filming the latest Star Wars installment in 2014, and the director is none too pleased about it, having completed filming for all of his previous films in Los Angeles, according to The Guardian. The first of the Abrams-directed trilogy is expected in 2015, with subsequent films arriving in 2017 and 2019.

5) And Maurice Sendak gets the Google Doodle treatment today for his birthday. The children’s book author and illustrator, who died just over a year ago today, would have been 85. Read more about the Doodle over on Comic Riffs.

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Vivek Wadhwa · June 7, 2013