STEM 101: intro to tomorrow's jobs

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Author: Dennis Vilorio
Date: Spring 2014
From: Occupational Outlook Quarterly(Vol. 58, Issue 1)
Publisher: U.S. Government Printing Office
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,047 words
Lexile Measure: 1140L

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The future of the economy is in STEM," says James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, D.C. "That's where the jobs of tomorrow will be."

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) support that assertion. Employment in occupations related to STEM--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--is projected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022. That's an increase of about 1 million jobs over 2012 employment levels.

This article provides an overview of STEM work, analyzing nearly 100 occupations from a list created by a committee comprising several federal agencies. The first section of the article offers a brief description of the life and physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics fields. The second section includes data showing selected STEM occupations with the most employment and projected job openings and growth. The third section discusses the rewards and challenges of STEM work. The fourth section describes how to prepare for a career in a STEM field. Resources for more information are listed at the end of the article.

What is STEM?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of STEM. Experts generally do agree, however, that STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, or math to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems. Their work often involves the use of computers and other tools.

STEM occupations are identified in a variety of ways. This article uses a list based on the Standard Occupational Classification Manual to analyze occupations from six groups, including computer and mathematics; architecture and engineering; and life, physical, and social sciences. (See table 1 on page 4.) Healthcare occupations are excluded from this analysis, because they are described in a separate article in this issue of the Quarterly.

STEM fields are closely related and build on each other. For example, math provides the foundation for physics--and physics, in turn, for engineering. Engineers can apply their knowledge of physics to make high-tech devices that are useful for testing theories in physics. Advances in physics may then lead to advances in engineering and technology.

To better understand STEM, a brief description of each field follows.


Science workers study the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation. "Science is a lens to interpret the world," says Julie Herrick, a volcanologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. "My job is to expand knowledge." Science workers can also inform public policy, such as by providing data to support limits on the use of toxic chemicals.

The work of scientists often involves research, writing proposals and academic papers, and presenting findings. Science technicians collect samples, conduct experiments, and do other tasks to assist scientists in those efforts.

Workers rely on the scientific method to objectively test hypotheses and theories. The scientific method requires repeatable experiments that produce predictable and observable data. When the data matches a theory's predictions, the experiment supports that theory. Theories with the most supportive evidence are adopted but may continue to evolve, based on new evidence.

Disciplines in science are categorized based on the part of the universe they study: space sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, chemistry, and physics. For example, the life sciences study the living world, such as plants or the human body; disciplines include ecology, genetics, neuroscience, pathology, and nutrition.


Technology workers use science and engineering to create and troubleshoot computer and information systems. For example, some tech workers develop software applications and build and maintain computer networks and databases.

Technology work connects people, making all forms of communication--including business transactions, video sharing, and mobile browsing--faster and less expensive. The work often involves designing, testing, maintaining, and improving computer software, hardware, systems, and networks. "The goal is not only to solve a problem, but also to make that problem easier to solve in the future," says Dan Parsons, an IT manager in Portland, Oregon.

STEM technology refers to disciplines in computer and information sciences, including those related to operating systems, artificial intelligence, programming, cryptography, and mobile computing.


Engineers and engineering technicians use math, science, and technology to solve real-world problems. The work often involves developing systems, structures, products, or materials. For example, a civil engineer might design a new train station to accommodate more passengers, and an environmental engineering technician might help create an environmental remediation device.

"Engineering makes things better and cheaper for everyone," says Patrick Holm, a project civil engineer in Olympia, Washington. "Without it, we couldn't live in the kind of society we know--with bridges, clean water, and cars."

Disciplines in engineering are often categorized by industry, such as aerospace, petroleum, or textiles. Major disciplines include civil, mechanical, industrial, electrical, and materials engineering.


Math workers use numerical, spatial, and logical relationships to study and solve problems. For example, an operations research analyst helps organizations identify practices that improve efficiency, and a mathematical technician applies standard formulas to technological problems in engineering and physical sciences.

Mathematics is the technical foundation for science, engineering, and technology. The work often involves finding patterns in data or abstract logic. These patterns can be used to draw general conclusions about data, to test mathematical relationships, and to model the real world.

Disciplines in math include algebra, statistics, calculus, game theory, and geometry.

Outlook and wages

Overall, STEM occupations are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations. And wages in these occupations were generally higher than the median for all occupations in May 2013.

This section explores the outlook and wages of STEM, both in general and for selected occupations.


BLS projects overall STEM employment, as defined in this article, to grow about 13 percent between 2012 and 2022. This is faster than the 11-percent rate of growth projected for all occupations over the decade.

But projected employment growth varies by occupation. Knowing which occupations are projected to have the most job openings and fastest growth may help you narrow your career options.

Most job openings. An occupation's projected job openings result from two factors: the creation of new jobs and the need to replace workers who retire or otherwise permanently leave. Occupations with more job openings usually offer more employment opportunities.

As table 2 shows, many of these STEM occupations are related to technology. For example, BLS projects applications software developers to have more than 200,000 job openings between 2012 and 2022.

Fastest growing. Nearly all STEM occupations discussed in this article are projected to grow between 2012 and 2022, according to BLS. And many STEM occupations are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations. Some of these occupations are in technology; others are related to math and engineering. (See table 3.)

Between 2012 and 2022, BLS projects the fastest growing occupations to have many job openings relative to their employment size. But that doesn't necessarily mean that these occupations have high employment. Some occupations, such as biomedical engineers and mathematicians, have small employment levels and are projected to remain small, despite fast growth.

Occupations with both high employment and fast growth usually offer better opportunities than small occupations with slow growth. High-employment, fast-growth occupations include computer systems analysts, applications software developers, and systems software developers.


BLS data show that workers in the STEM occupations discussed in this article earned a median annual wage of nearly $76,000--more than double the $35,080 median wage for all workers in May 2013. Many of the top-paying occupations are related to engineering. (See table 4.)

Rewards and challenges

STEM work, like that of most jobs, is both rewarding and challenging. You might work on an interesting project that yields meaningful results, for example--but, to complete it, you might need to repeat an experiment many times or navigate complex government regulations.


Many STEM workers find their jobs intellectually stimulating. They enjoy collaborating with people who share their enthusiasm and working with cutting-edge technology. "STEM offers a cooperative, innovative, and exciting work environment that is unparalleled," says Aimee Kennedy, vice president for education and STEM learning at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

Depending on the occupation, STEM work may be creative and produce tangible results. For example, a biologist might make a discovery in the laboratory and publish that research in a scientific journal. A civil engineering technician may help design a storage facility or other structure and then assist in working with the contractor who builds it.

Workers in STEM occupations also enjoy the variety of problems they solve. "Every problem is a unique challenge to figure out," Holm says. "Even if you use similar skills, the way you apply them is different."

Because many STEM fields involve rapid change, workers' professional development is also dynamic. "There's always something more to learn," says Herrick. "Don't expect an end."


As rewarding as STEM work may be, it can sometimes be demanding and tedious. For example, projects may take hundreds of hours over weeks or months to complete. And routine tasks may include cataloging data, filling out paperwork, and documenting observations. "There's a lot of sitting in front of a computer," says Frances Tirado, a mathematical statistician at BLS in Washington, DC.

Other challenges vary, depending on the field. For example, many jobs in scientific research receive short-term financial support, so these workers often worry about funding. And engineering workers must juggle different priorities, from clients and the government, while keeping a project on schedule. "There are a lot of demands to satisfy," Holm says, "so you can't always do what you think is the best solution."

Despite the challenges, however, STEM workers often report feeling respected and fulfilled. "You feel that what you're doing is important and you matter as an employee," says Tirado. "People value your skills, listen to your ideas, and think that what you do is magic."

Getting started

STEM experts recommend that prospective STEM workers have a combination of skills, education, and experience for getting started in these careers.


Along with having a technical foundation, prospective STEM workers must have strong thinking and communication skills. "People focus so much on math and science that they often ignore these skills," Holm says. Ability to consider problems in different ways and then being able to explain a solution clearly is essential for success in STEM occupations.

Thinking skills. Critical and creative thinking help STEM workers in problemsolving to detect mistakes, gather relevant information, and understand how different parts or systems interact with each other.

STEM workers also need thinking skills to develop innovative, cost-effective solutions. Workers who think creatively may approach a problem differently--for example, by adapting knowledge from other disciplines. "Often times, you're the last resort for a problem because no one else could solve it," Tirado says. "Creativity can help you come up with a solution no else could."

Communication skills. Communication skills are important for working well with others and conveying information clearly, both orally and in writing. "Flaws in communication are a common source of conflict," says Parsons. "You'll usually work with or for someone else, so having these skills will make you stand out."

Communication skills include technical writing, public speaking, interpersonal communication, and the ability to explain difficult concepts simply. Learning some of these skills may seem intimidating at first, but practice helps. For example, you can improve your public speaking skills by practicing in front of small groups until you feel comfortable with a bigger audience.

Education and training

Many STEM occupations require at least a bachelor's degree. More technical and advanced jobs, including those in research, usually require a master's or doctoral degree.

But STEM isn't only for people who have a bachelor's or graduate degree. Many occupations typically require an associate's degree, and a small number require either some college but no degree or a high school diploma or equivalent.

Although you may already know which specific occupation you want to pursue, don't fret if you are unsure. Some disciplines, such as math and physics, are useful in many STEM fields. "Students should follow what they want to do," Brown says. "There are lots of options in STEM, in whatever area you're interested in."

Workers in some STEM occupations may need training after they are hired to gain competency in the occupation. Others may need licensure, depending on the type of work that they do.

High school diploma. You don't have to wait until college to prepare for a STEM career. Most high schools offer a variety of math and science classes, for example. STEM workers recommend pursuing challenging ones--such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses--to improve your transcript and adjust to the demands of STEM work. "Take as many rigorous classes as you can," Kennedy says, "as early as you can."

Surveying and mapping technicians is an example of a STEM occupation typically open to high school graduates.

Associate's degree. An associate's degree is awarded upon completion of an undergraduate program that typically lasts at least 2 years.

Occupations that require an associate's degree include chemical technicians, computer network support specialists, and mechanical drafters.

Bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree usually requires 4 years of undergraduate study. Many STEM occupations require this degree, including actuaries, civil engineers, and information security analysts.

But don't become so focused on one discipline that you overlook the importance of developing a broad, well-rounded education. "You get problems from anywhere," says Tirado, "so you need to know a little about everything." Use college electives to sample other STEM disciplines or completely different areas of study, such as the humanities.

Graduate degree. Still other STEM occupations typically require a master's or doctoral degree.

A master's degree usually requires 1 or 2 years beyond a bachelor's degree. Many master's programs also require students to write a research paper, known as a thesis. STEM occupations that typically require a master's degree include epidemiologists, hydrologists, and statisticians.

A doctoral degree usually requires at least 3 years beyond a bachelor's degree. To receive a doctoral degree, students must often complete a dissertation, a lengthy research project that contributes new knowledge to the field. Occupations that require a doctoral degree include animal scientists, computer and information research scientists, and physicists.


In some STEM occupations, work experience in a related occupation is required at the entry level. For example, computer and information systems managers usually need at least 5 years of experience, first honing their technical skills in lower-level roles before moving to management.

Even in occupations that don't require it, however, work experience often sets you apart. "Companies want to bring you up to speed so you can be productive quickly," says Holm. "But there are so many skills you don't learn in school that you can only learn on the job."

STEM workers advise you to look for internship, volunteer, and research opportunities as early as possible: while you are still in school, not waiting until afterward. Your career advisor or counselor may have information about businesses that offer these types of opportunities.

Before applying for such positions, be sure to document in a resume or portfolio your experience and accomplishments. Highlight school or work assignments that confirm your qualifications and that help set you apart from other candidates.

Getting experience before graduation also can help you determine whether a STEM career will be right for you. "It's important to find something that excites you," Herrick says, "because working in STEM means making an investment in a passion."

As you broaden your experience, you should also broaden your network. "Your network is more important than your resume," says Brown, and should include mentors, business colleagues, and instructors. Develop a network by meeting people through work, volunteer, and internship positions; joining a club or working on a research project; and participating in job fairs, industry events, and online discussion boards.

Work experience can teach valuable lessons, such as how to cope with stress and persevere despite difficulties. "You must be comfortable knowing that you will struggle and won't know all the answers," says Tirado. "But, as a result, you're going to learn much more and become a better worker."

For more information

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) has detailed profiles for hundreds of occupations, including those discussed in this article. Profiles include information about job duties, wages, typical education, job outlook, and more. The OOH is available online at

Current and recent articles in the Occupational Outlook Quarterly that feature occupations in STEM include:

* "Healthcare: Millions of jobs now and in the future" in the spring 2014 issue at

* "Working with big data" in the fall 2013 issue at

* "My career: Web operations engineer" in the summer 2013 issue at www.bls. gov/ooq/2013/summer/mycareer.pdf

* "You're a what? Ornithologist" in the summer 2013 issue at ooq/2013/summer/yawhat.pdf

* "Math at work: Using numbers on the job" in the fall 2012 issue at

* "You're a what? Psychometrician" in the fall 2011 issue at

BLS has other information and data about STEM occupations. For a list of the 184 occupations included in many federal government STEM studies, visit www.bls. gov/soc/Attachment_C_STEM.pdf. For current employment and wage data, search STEM occupations at And for employment projections between 2012 and 2022, visit

For more general data on STEM, contact:

National Science Foundation

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics

4201 Wilson Blvd., Suite 965

Arlington, VA 22230

(703) 292-8780

Additional information about specific STEM fields or disciplines is available from professional associations and industry groups. For example, broad information is available from large associations, such as the American Mathematical Society ( for mathematicians and the IEEE ( for technology workers. Small, discipline-focused associations, including the American Society of Civil Engineers ( and National Science Teachers Association (, provide more specialized information.

Some states offer online educational and career resources for their residents. For example, STEM Georgia has information about competitions, schools, and underrepresented groups--such as women and minorities--at A few professional associations, such as the Society of Women Engineers,, offer scholarships and awards to these underrepresented groups into STEM.

To learn more about STEM education, contact:

STEM Education Coalition

2000 M St. NW., Suite 520

Washington, DC 20036

Dennis Vilorio is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. He can be reached at (202) 691-5711 or at vilorio.dennis@

Table 1: STEM occupations, by occupational group


Architectural and engineering managers
Computer and information systems managers
Natural sciences managers

Computer and mathematics

Computer and information research scientists
Computer network architects
Computer network support specialists
Computer programmers
Computer systems analysts
Computer user support specialists
Database administrators
Information security analysts
Mathematical technicians
Network and computer systems administrators
Operations research analysts
Software developers, applications
Software developers, systems software
Web developers
Computer occupations, all other
Mathematical science occupations, all other

Architecture and engineering

Aerospace engineering and operations technicians
Aerospace engineers
Agricultural engineers
Architectural and civil drafters
Biomedical engineers
Chemical engineers
Civil engineering technicians
Civil engineers
Computer hardware engineers
Electrical and electronics drafters
Electrical and electronics engineering technicians
Electrical engineers
Electro-mechanical technicians
Electronics engineers, except computer
Environmental engineering technicians
Environmental engineers
Health and safety engineers, except mining safety engineers
  and inspectors
Industrial engineering technicians
Industrial engineers
Marine engineers and naval architects
Materials engineers
Mechanical drafters
Mechanical engineering technicians
Mechanical engineers
Mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineers
Nuclear engineers
Petroleum engineers
Surveying and mapping technicians
Drafters, all other
Engineering technicians, except drafters, all other
Engineers, all other

Life, physical, and social sciences

Agricultural and food science technicians
Animal scientists
Atmospheric and space scientists
Biochemists and biophysicists
Biological technicians
Chemical technicians
Conservation scientists
Environmental science and protection technicians, including health
Environmental scientists and specialists, including health
Food scientists and technologists
Forensic science technicians
Forest and conservation technicians
Geological and petroleum technicians
Geoscientists, except hydrologists and geographers
Life, physical, and social science technicians, all other
Materials scientists
Medical scientists, except epidemiologists
Nuclear technicians
Soil and plant scientists
Zoologists and wildlife biologists
Biological scientists, all other
Life scientists, all other
Physical scientists, all other

Education, training, and library

Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary
Architecture teachers, postsecondary
Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers,
Biological science teachers, postsecondary
Chemistry teachers, postsecondary
Computer science teachers, postsecondary
Engineering teachers, postsecondary
Environmental science teachers, postsecondary
Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary
Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary
Physics teachers, postsecondary Sales and related

Sales engineers

Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, technical and
  scientific products

Source: 2010 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) System, SOC
Policy Committee recommendation to the Office of Management and
Budget. Healthcare occupations are not included.

Table 2: Selected STEM occupations with many job openings,
projected 2012-22

Occupation           Job openings,       Employment

                                      2012     Projected

Software                  218,500    613,000    752,900
Computer systems          209,600    520,600    648,400
Computer user             196,900    547,700    658,500
Software                  134,700    405,000    487,800
  systems software
Civil engineers           120,100    272,900    326,600

Computer                  118,100    343,700    372,100
Sales                     111,800    382,300    419,500
  wholesale and
  technical and
  products (2)
Network and               100,500    366,400    409,400
  computer systems
Mechanical                 99,700    258,100    269,700
Computer and               97,100    332,700    383,600
  managers (3)
Industrial                 75,400    223,300    233,400
Architectural and          60,600    193,800    206,900
  managers (3)
Web developers             50,700    141,400    169,900

Electrical                 44,100    166,100    174,000
Computer network           43,500    143,400    164,300
  architects (3)

Occupation           Median annual       Typical
                     wage, May 2013    entry-level
                                      education (1)

Software                   $92,660    Bachelor's
  developers,                           degree
Computer systems            81,190    Bachelor's
  analysts                              degree
Computer user               46,620    Some college,
  support                               no degree
Software                   101,410    Bachelor's
  developers,                           degree
  systems software
Civil engineers             80,770    Bachelor's
Computer                    76,140    Bachelor's
  programmers                           degree
Sales                       74,520    Bachelor's
  representatives,                      degree
  wholesale and
  technical and
  products (2)
Network and                 74,000    Bachelor's
  computer systems                      degree
Mechanical                  82,100    Bachelor's
  engineers                             degree
Computer and               123,950    Bachelor's
  information                           degree
  managers (3)
Industrial                  80,300    Bachelor's
  engineers                             degree
Architectural and          128,170    Bachelor's
  engineering                           degree
  managers (3)
Web developers              63,160    Associate's
Electrical                  89,180    Bachelor's
  engineers                             degree
Computer network            95,380    Bachelor's
  architects (3)                        degree

(1) Unless otherwise specified, occupations typically require neither
work experience in a related occupation nor on-the-job training to
obtain competency.

(2) In addition to the education specified, this occupation typically
requires moderate-term on-the-job training for workers to obtain

(3) In addition to the education specified, this occupation typically
requires 5 years or more of work experience in a related occupation.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections
program (employment, projections, and education data) and
Occupational Employment Statistics survey (wage data).

Table 3: Selected STEM occupations with fast employment growth,
projected 2012-22

Occupation         Employment       Employment

                                 2012     Projected

Information               37%   75,100     102,500
  analysts (2)
Operations                27    73,200      92,700
Statisticians             27    27,600      34,900

Biomedical                27    19,400      24,600
Actuaries (3)             26    24,300      30,600

Petroleum                 26    38,500      48,400
Computer systems          25    520,600    648,400
Software                  23    613,000    752,900
Mathematicians            23     3,500       4,300

Software                  20    405,000    487,800
Computer user             20    547,700    658,500
Web developers            20    141,400    169,900

Civil engineers           20    272,900    326,600

Biological                20    61,400      73,400
Environmental             19    32,800      38,900
  science and

Occupation         Median annual      Typical
                     wage, May      entry-level
                       2013        education (1)

Information             $88,590    Bachelor's
  security                           degree
  analysts (2)
Operations               74,630    Bachelor's
  research                           degree
Statisticians            79,290    Master's
Biomedical               88,670    Bachelor's
  engineers                          degree
Actuaries (3)            94,340    Bachelor's
Petroleum               132,320    Bachelor's
  engineers                          degree
Computer systems         81,190    Bachelor's
  analysts                           degree
Software                 92,660    Bachelor's
  developers,                        degree
Mathematicians          102,440    Master's
Software                101,410    Bachelor's
  developers,                        degree
Computer user            46,620    Some college,
  support                            no degree
Web developers           63,160    Associate's
Civil engineers          80,770    Bachelor's
Biological               75,740    Doctoral or
  science                            professional
  teachers,                          degree
Environmental            41,700    Associate's
  science and                        degree

(1) Unless otherwise specified, occupations typically require
neither work experience in a related occupation nor on-the-job
training to obtain competency.

(2) In addition to the education specified, this occupation
typically requires less than 5 years of work experience in
a related occupation.

(3) In addition to the education specified, this occupation
typically requires long-term on-the-job training for workers
to obtain competency.

(4) In addition to the education specified, this occupation
typically requires moderate-term on-the-job training for
workers to obtain competency.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections
program (employment, projections, and education data) and
Occupational Employment Statistics survey (wage data).

Table 4: Median annual wages in selected STEM occupations, May 2013

Occupation             Median       Employment            Typical
                       annual                           entry-level
                       wage,                             education1
                      May 2013

                                  2012     Projected

Petroleum engineers   $132,320   38,500      48,400    Bachelor's
Architectural and     128,170    193,800    206,900    Bachelor's
  engineering                                            degree
  managers (2)
Computer and          123,950    332,700    383,600    Bachelor's
  information                                            degree
  systems managers
Natural sciences      116,840    51,600      54,500    Bachelor's
  managers (2)                                           degree
Astronomers           110,450     2,700       2,900    Doctoral or
Physicists            110,110    20,600      22,700    Doctoral or
Computer and          106,290    26,700      30,800    Doctoral or
  information                                            professional
  research                                               degree
Computer hardware     104,250    83,300      89,400    Bachelor's
  engineers                                              degree
Aerospace engineers   103,870    83,000      89,100    Bachelor's
Mathematicians        102,440     3,500       4,300    Master's
Nuclear engineers     101,600    20,400      22,300    Bachelor's
Software              101,410    405,000    487,800    Bachelor's
  developers,                                            degree
  systems software
Chemical engineers     95,730    33,300      34,800    Bachelor's
Computer network       95,380    143,400    164,300    Bachelor's
  architects (2)                                         degree
Engineering            94,460    42,500      47,500    Doctoral or
  teachers,                                              professional
  postsecondary                                          degree

(1) Unless otherwise specified, occupations typically require neither
work experience in a related occupation nor on-the-job training to
obtain competency.

(2) In addition to the education specified, this occupation typically
requires 5 years or more of work experience in a related occupation.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections
program (employment, projections, and education data) and
Occupational Employment Statistics survey (wage data).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A367197203