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Definition of STEM economy needs to be broadened report says

Brookings Institution

A new report from the Brookings Institution argues that more resources for training workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) should be directed at non-degree education providers.

The need for more STEM grads is a familiar cry from industry leaders and politicians alike. But, this new report argues there’s a large potential workforce being ignored because STEM jobs are being too narrowly defined.

Roughly half of all STEM jobs can be filled by people with less than a four-year college degree, according to the report.

Lead uuthor Jonathan Rothwell says the problem is, that’s not where the funding goes.

“Most of the training dollars are going to the university or higher levels. I don’t think there’s going to be enough funding for community college level training and career technical training of various kinds if we continue to use the current definition.”

And he says there’s a growing range of technical blue collar jobs that require extensive STEM knowledge, like construction and advanced manufacturing.

Credit Brookings Institution
Share of STEM jobs in major US industries

Rothwell says funding bodies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) need to broaden their definition of the STEM field to encourage policymakers to direct more resources to community college and technical training programs.

“We want to point out that there’s a career path that does not necessarily have to have a four year college system with all of the expenses that entails,” he says. 

“These are good job opportunities and provide fairly high wages for the level of education, even for folks who may just get a post-secondary certificate or associate’s degree. So one of the things that we really wanted to highlight is that this is an option for people who would not otherwise get a post-secondary education and it’s a way for them to get a skilled career that will hopefully lead to a comfortable middle-classed life.”

More community college funding from the NSF

More than 10 percent of STEM jobs are in installation, repair and maintenance occupations. With 50 percent of all STEM jobs falling in the categories of manufacturing, construction or health.

Rothwell says funding bodies like NSF need to broaden their definition of the field and funnel more support to community college and technical training programs.

The National Science Foundation’s Joan Ferrini-Mundy says the report provides a good tool for identifying the growing fields in which STEM knowledge is required, but the current definition is sufficient.

“I feel pretty confident that our definition is broad enough that it’s allowing for a dynamic and interesting set of proposals coming in and going forward.”

Ferrini-Mundy says NSF programs like the Advanced Technology Education program reach more than 37,000 STEM students who are receiving associate degrees. She says there is definitely a strong focus on funding community college programs.

But, Rothwell says it's only about 7 percent of the NSF funding pot that goes in that direction.

More than one in five American jobs requires a high level of knowledge in one or more of the STEM fields.

That’s why, Rothwell says, it’s important to accurately define the field.

“It’s important to have an accurate definition really to better understand the training and education needs for workers to get into these ultimately high paying jobs.”

The report shows that STEM skills are highly rewarded regardless of education level. The average pay for someone without a four-year degree is $53,000. That’s 10 percent higher than wages paid for other jobs with similar educational requirements.


Rothwell says the differences in STEM focus across geographic regions in the US aren’t great. But, he says the northeast, and New York state particularly, tends to be less STEM-oriented.

Credit Brookings Institution
Cities with highest and lowest demand for STEM workers.

“Probably the main difference is energy extraction in some of the more rural states out west where there are lots of coal and natural gas resources being developed currently,” Rothwell says.

He says New York City’s focus on arts and financial industries tends to skew the results for the state. There is a bigger STEM orientation in the upstate areas, mainly due to the advanced manufacturing industry.

Rochester ranks 30th out of 100 in terms of the percentage of STEM jobs present in large cities, with Syracuse a long way back in 72nd place.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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