Research News

What is a ‘STEM job?’ WCER researchers explain virtues of uniform definition

December 09, 2014
by Cliff White

Students entering college generally have an idea that studying science, technology, engineering, or math -- the STEM disciplines -- can lead to a good-paying job after they graduate. But varying definitions of what exactly qualifies as a STEM career can be misleading not just to students, but also to researchers and economists who study the state of the U.S. economy and predict future occupational needs, according to Amanda Oleson, a researcher with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER).

In studying recent research and economic reports from sources as varied as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net occupation information network, National Science Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, Oleson and WCER colleagues Matthew Hora and Ross Benbow found that estimates for the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. vary wildly, from a low of 5.4 million jobs to a high of 26 million. These estimates differ due to whether certain occupations in healthcare and the social sciences are included, as well as if jobs that require varying levels of STEM skills or education, such as doctoral-level quality control engineers or frontline factory workers, are included.

In a Viewpoint paper titled “What is a STEM Job?” Oleson, Hora and Benbow, who are part of the NSF-funded study “Exploring the Alignment Between Workforce Needs and Postsecondary Education,” assert that STEM job estimates vary because the use of differing definitions of what STEM means lead to “dramatically different conclusions regarding the opportunity and future earnings suggested by the catch-all term ‘STEM jobs.’”

In the paper, they argue for a more comprehensive and standardized definition for STEM occupations. “Whether or not fields such as healthcare or blue-collar occupations are included or excluded from labor market analyses have significant implications for the resulting number of jobs, potential wages, and the type of education and training needed to qualify for one of these jobs,” they wrote.

The group’s research found that, of the economic forecasts they studied, a majority omitted blue-collar occupations, such as jobs in healthcare or construction that may require STEM skills but not a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree. Further problems arise when forecasters or the media attempt to identify and discuss the number of STEM jobs by industry rather than occupation, the report said.

Amanda Oleson
“There’s a conflation between industry and occupation, which can be confusing for many reasons,” Oleson said. “It may lead to reports saying that the number of manufacturing jobs is growing, when in reality it’s just the demand for machinists, for example. And for people reading and acting on those reports, that may lead them to mistaken conclusions about whether a job will exist for them if they choose to pursue an occupation in that industry, and what wage to expect in their chosen career.”

The fuzzy math of deciding what is and what is not a STEM job has major implications for many groups including researchers trying to get a clearer picture of the data, high school students planning their futures, elected officials who craft policy and members of the media whose reports of economic news shape public opinion, Oleson said.

“These huge discrepancies in definition are having a big impact on our collective impression of what role we think the STEM job will inhabit in the future of the country,” Oleson said. “Right now, perhaps  as a result of these reports, we think of STEM jobs as white-collar jobs, but if you include blue-collar jobs that still require STEM skills, which in many cases only require certificates or technical degrees to obtain, that can really affect the conclusions we make about STEM as individuals and as a society.”

The research paper makes two recommendations to those whose work involves describing STEM jobs: discuss STEM-related occupations by exact occupation instead of using an ambiguous phrase like “STEM jobs” or referencing industries in general (e.g., manufacturing), and be explicit about what definitions is being employed – consider using the definition for STEM occupations developed by the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee or creating a more comprehensive definition that includes varying levels of STEM disciplinary knowledge and skills, resulting in the inclusion of blue-collar jobs not necessarily requiring a bachelor’s degree.

For Oleson, Hora and Benbow, an equally vexing problem regarding the definition of STEM jobs is an overemphasis by educators and policymakers on the types of degrees required for STEM jobs.  For example, many reports professionalize STEM jobs, essentially ignoring those requiring sub-baccalaureate degrees, but those reports that examined STEM jobs requiring varying levels of education do project available STEM job opportunities across all levels of education.

In their own research on alignment, Oleson, Hora, and Benbow have found “that in some cases hiring and promotion decisions have less to do with an applicant’s qualifications on paper than on their demonstrated aptitudes in a variety of skill and knowledge areas,” they wrote in the working paper.  This suggests that the spotlight remain on STEM jobs and the necessary credentials to get such jobs, but with a slightly different focus on cultivating the necessary skills to be a successful worker in the 21st century.

“For those making policy or creating academic curricula around the country’s increasing demand for STEM workers, the focus should be on building STEM skills, but also worker skills in general,” Oleson said. “Those leading the charge on STEM jobs need to work on teaching and training tomorrow’s workers so they are equipped a broad set of skills beyond just technical expertise in a single field.”