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."
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 www.bls.gov/ooh.
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 www.bls.gov/ooq/2014/spring/art02.pdf
* "Working with big data" in the fall 2013 issue at www.bls.gov/ooq/2013/fall/art01.pdf
* "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 www.bls.gov/ ooq/2013/summer/yawhat.pdf
* "Math at work: Using numbers on the job" in the fall 2012 issue at www.bls.gov/ooq/2012/fall/art01.pdf
* "You're a what? Psychometrician" in the fall 2011 issue at www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2011/fall/yawhat.pdf
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 www.bls.gov/oes. And for employment projections between 2012 and 2022, visit www.bls.gov/emp.
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
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 (www.ams.org) for mathematicians and the IEEE (www.ieee.org) for technology workers. Small, discipline-focused associations, including the American Society of Civil Engineers (www.asce.org) and National Science Teachers Association (www.nsta.org), 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 www.stemgeorgia.org. A few professional associations, such as the Society of Women Engineers, www.swe.org, 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@ bls.gov.
Table 1: STEM occupations, by occupational group Management Architectural and engineering managers Computer and information systems managers Natural sciences managers Computer and mathematics Actuaries 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 Mathematicians Network and computer systems administrators Operations research analysts Software developers, applications Software developers, systems software Statisticians 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 Astronomers Atmospheric and space scientists Biochemists and biophysicists Biological technicians Chemical technicians Chemists Conservation scientists Environmental science and protection technicians, including health Environmental scientists and specialists, including health Epidemiologists Food scientists and technologists Forensic science technicians Forest and conservation technicians Foresters Geological and petroleum technicians Geoscientists, except hydrologists and geographers Hydrologists Life, physical, and social science technicians, all other Materials scientists Medical scientists, except epidemiologists Microbiologists Nuclear technicians Physicists 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, postsecondary 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 projected 2012-22 2012 Projected 2022 Software 218,500 613,000 752,900 developers, applications Computer systems 209,600 520,600 648,400 analysts Computer user 196,900 547,700 658,500 support specialists (2) Software 134,700 405,000 487,800 developers, systems software Civil engineers 120,100 272,900 326,600 Computer 118,100 343,700 372,100 programmers Sales 111,800 382,300 419,500 representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, technical and scientific products (2) Network and 100,500 366,400 409,400 computer systems administrators Mechanical 99,700 258,100 269,700 engineers Computer and 97,100 332,700 383,600 information systems managers (3) Industrial 75,400 223,300 233,400 engineers Architectural and 60,600 193,800 206,900 engineering managers (3) Web developers 50,700 141,400 169,900 Electrical 44,100 166,100 174,000 engineers 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 applications Computer systems 81,190 Bachelor's analysts degree Computer user 46,620 Some college, support no degree specialists (2) Software 101,410 Bachelor's developers, degree systems software Civil engineers 80,770 Bachelor's degree Computer 76,140 Bachelor's programmers degree Sales 74,520 Bachelor's representatives, degree wholesale and manufacturing, technical and scientific products (2) Network and 74,000 Bachelor's computer systems degree administrators Mechanical 82,100 Bachelor's engineers degree Computer and 123,950 Bachelor's information degree systems 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 degree 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 competency. (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 growth, projected 2012-22 (percent) 2012 Projected 2022 Information 37% 75,100 102,500 security analysts (2) Operations 27 73,200 92,700 research analysts Statisticians 27 27,600 34,900 Biomedical 27 19,400 24,600 engineers Actuaries (3) 26 24,300 30,600 Petroleum 26 38,500 48,400 engineers Computer systems 25 520,600 648,400 analysts Software 23 613,000 752,900 developers, applications Mathematicians 23 3,500 4,300 Software 20 405,000 487,800 developers, systems software Computer user 20 547,700 658,500 support specialists (4) Web developers 20 141,400 169,900 Civil engineers 20 272,900 326,600 Biological 20 61,400 73,400 science teachers, postsecondary Environmental 19 32,800 38,900 science and protection technicians, including health 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 analysts Statisticians 79,290 Master's degree Biomedical 88,670 Bachelor's engineers degree Actuaries (3) 94,340 Bachelor's degree Petroleum 132,320 Bachelor's engineers degree Computer systems 81,190 Bachelor's analysts degree Software 92,660 Bachelor's developers, degree applications Mathematicians 102,440 Master's degree Software 101,410 Bachelor's developers, degree systems software Computer user 46,620 Some college, support no degree specialists (4) Web developers 63,160 Associate's degree Civil engineers 80,770 Bachelor's degree Biological 75,740 Doctoral or science professional teachers, degree postsecondary Environmental 41,700 Associate's science and degree protection technicians, including health (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 2022 Petroleum engineers $132,320 38,500 48,400 Bachelor's degree 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 (2) Natural sciences 116,840 51,600 54,500 Bachelor's managers (2) degree Astronomers 110,450 2,700 2,900 Doctoral or professional degree Physicists 110,110 20,600 22,700 Doctoral or professional degree Computer and 106,290 26,700 30,800 Doctoral or information professional research degree scientists Computer hardware 104,250 83,300 89,400 Bachelor's engineers degree Aerospace engineers 103,870 83,000 89,100 Bachelor's degree Mathematicians 102,440 3,500 4,300 Master's degree Nuclear engineers 101,600 20,400 22,300 Bachelor's degree Software 101,410 405,000 487,800 Bachelor's developers, degree systems software Chemical engineers 95,730 33,300 34,800 Bachelor's degree 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).