Study illuminates the role of STEM jobs in D.C. area economy

Jobs that incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills comprise a larger share of positions in the Washington region than in nearly every other metropolitan area in the United States, according to a study released Monday by the Brookings Institution.

Brookings found that 27.1 percent of Washington area jobs require STEM skills. Only San Jose, the metropolitan area that is a hub for start-ups and home to technology giants such as Google and Apple, had a larger share of STEM jobs: 33.2 percent.

“D.C. is famous for being one of the highest-educated metro areas in the country, but many people assume that that knowledge is embodied in legislative knowledge and legal knowledge,” said Jonathan Rothwell, a senior research associate at Brookings who authored the study. “But, in fact, many of the jobs require scientific and mathematical knowledge.”

The Washington area also fared well when it came to its total number of STEM jobs. With 765,180 STEM jobs in 2011, only three metropolitan areas outranked the region.

“That bodes well in terms of economic performance across a number of different areas, including income, the likelihood of being employed,” Rothwell said.

The Washington region’s multitude of STEM jobs can be found across a variety of employers. Most obviously, there are a host of defense industry jobs that demand computer science skills. In the government sector, many workers at the National Institutes of Health fall into this category, as do the statisticians, economists and financial analysts working for agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Brookings identifies “computer occupations” as the most commonly held STEM job in the Washington area, with a total of 205,890 positions in this category in 2011. This easily surpasses the number of jobs in occupations such as “health diagnosing and treating practitioners,” which had 81,550 positions; financial specialists, 57,760; and engineers, 46,990.

Many policymakers have expressed concern that there are not enough properly trained STEM workers to meet the labor market’s demand. Rothwell said that appears to be true, based on data that show that STEM jobs take longer to fill than non-STEM jobs, presumably because it’s more difficult to find qualified candidates.

Relying on its own definition of STEM jobs, consulting firm Akron conducted a study that found that the median compensation for STEM jobs in the Washington region rose 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, compared with a 3 percent increase for non-STEM jobs. The difference suggests that demand might be greater for workers in STEM positions.

Blue-collar STEM jobs

STEM workers are not necessarily chemical engineers or biophysicists with a dizzying list of advanced degrees. The Brookings study defines STEM jobs much more broadly: In addition to the typical positions that require at least a bachelor’s degree, the study identifies many “blue-collar STEM jobs.”

Car repair technicians, for example, must have proficient technology skills now that much of automotive diagnostic work is done on computers. The study highlights numerous other jobs that do not require a college degree but do call for some STEM knowledge, including those in office machine repair, building inspection and some in health care.

These workers, Rothwell said, are “on the front lines of implementing the ideas that the researchers come up with . . . . The products themselves can not be brought to market without these technicians.”

When the definition of STEM workers is expanded to include these types of jobs, Brookings found that 50 percent of STEM jobs nationwide are available to workers who did not attend college. And for workers with that level of education, the positions offer greater economic opportunity than many others. Brookings found that blue-collar STEM jobs pay an average of $53,000 per year, which is 10 percent above non-STEM jobs with similar education requirements.

Although the Washington area has one of the largest shares of STEM jobs overall, a relatively small portion of those are blue-collar jobs. Only 29.8 percent of local STEM jobs call for an associate’s degree or less. That means the region ranks 99th out of 100 metropolitan areas for its share of STEM jobs that do not require bachelor’s degrees.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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