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In well-educated D.C. area, job market clusters academic backgrounds

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:48 PM

The stereotype is true: Washington is packed with lawyers, journalists and policy nerds with degrees in soft sciences and the humanities. But census data reveal remarkable new detail on the region's other identity - as home to engineers, computer scientists and biologists who mostly live and work beyond the Capital Beltway.

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The picture that emerges from the 2009 American Community Survey, released last month, is of a Washington area unified in academic achievement yet diverse in the kinds of degrees residents have attained. Clusters of academic interest help define the character of each community.

The driving force is a job market that concentrates people with similar skills. Loudoun County, with its military contractors, has computer scientists and statisticians. Montgomery County, home to the National Institutes of Health and a bustling biotech industry, is heavy on the life sciences. Fairfax County's high-tech industries have attracted many engineers. Prince George's County, meanwhile, has become something of a bedroom community for the region's teachers, with a surplus of education degrees.

"The Washington [area] economy isn't monolithic. It's a real economy," said Stephen Fuller, a public policy scholar at George Mason University.

The data, drawn from questionnaires, underscore the academic primacy of the Washington area: 47 percent of adults - or nearly 2 million - hold bachelor's degrees, the highest rate among the nation's large urban areas. Six of the 10 best-educated U.S. counties are within commuting distance of the District.

Half of all degrees in the region are in natural and social sciences, well above the national average, under a broad Census Bureau definition of "science" that includes everything from nuclear physics to sociology. That's a starting point for looking at variations within the region: So-called hard sciences reign beyond the Beltway, soft ones within.

D.C. is indeed the center of the universe for political scientists, and economists fill jobs at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the World Bank. Many lawyers and lobbyists have social science training. And then there are the legions of political interns and pages, working their way up Capitol Hill.

In the inner suburbs of Arlington County and Alexandria, one-fifth of college degrees come in the social sciences, an academic pedigree similar to the District's.

"Everybody listens to NPR. Everybody reads four or five newspapers," Mike Panetta, a former political science major at American University who serves as shadow U.S. representative for the District, said of the city. "You can be at any sort of party, and somebody's talking about recent strife in some corner of the room, and everybody's heard about it, and everybody has an opinion about it."

The sprawling bedroom communities outside the Beltway have higher-than-average percentages of adults educated in the hard sciences, including math and engineering.

They feed distinct regional economies: federal science and research agencies in suburban Maryland; defense contractors and technology firms in Northern Virginia.

"The culture of those workers is so different," Fuller said.

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