New research shows policymakers could be ignoring a huge and important segment of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers as they apportion budgets for higher education.
The thrust of a report released today by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based economic research organization, makes the case for redefining STEM work to highlight the number of "hidden" high-skill, well-paying jobs that require STEM education but not necessarily a four-year degree.
This should be a wake-up call for the West Michigan region as it tries to grow several key industries, including manufacturing, health care, and construction – all sectors that rely on the jobs noted in the report.
More than half of the jobs that require high-level STEM knowledge in at least one field do not require a bachelor's degree. STEM workers are also roughly two years older than the average worker, signaling a higher potential demand for replacement workers than in other fields.
Of the 100 largest metros in the country, the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan statistical area ranked 61st in terms of STEM jobs (69,110) and 57th in the percentage (19.6 percent) of those jobs that are STEM-related, according to 2011 data cited by Brookings.
"It was surprising to see just how many STEM jobs that are considered blue-collar actually require a high level of knowledge in field like math and chemistry," said Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate and associate fellow with the metropolitan policy program at Brookings. "When we set out to do this (research), we really wanted to provide richer data as they're commonly understood."
Other findings included:
- As of 2011, 26 million U.S. jobs — 20 percent of all jobs — require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.
- Half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average — a wage 10-percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.
- STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree are highly clustered in certain metropolitan areas, while sub-bachelor's degree STEM jobs are prevalent in every large metropolitan area.
- More STEM-oriented metropolitan economies perform strongly on a wide variety of economic indicators, from innovation to employment.
"My general advice is people should get as much education as they can, but as it happens with rising education costs, especially with four-year programs, less than a third of young people are finishing four-year degrees," Rothwell said. "Two-thirds of those people need to develop some skills, and this report emphasizes that there are other options that lead to good paying jobs."
However, federal subsidies to institutions that support four-year degree paths are double that of programs supporting two-year degree programs and certificate-based career paths, according to the report.
Of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education and training, only one-fifth goes toward supporting sub-bachelor's degree level training, while twice as much funding supports bachelor's or higher level STEM education, the report states.
Still, there is an upshot to what the data uncover. Plenty of good jobs exist and should continue to grow as long as the private and public sectors can work quickly to entice new workers, offer continuous training for the current workforce and retrain the unemployed, Rothwell said.
"The good news is there are going to be jobs that pay good middle-class wages. The problem is that workers in low-skill jobs may not be prepared to jump," Rothwell said. "The STEM economy is much broader and more diverse than people have previously thought, and there are a large number of jobs that don't require a degree but do require a lot of skill and should be supported by public policymakers to a greater extent."
One concern moving forward is companies that continue to offshore production in large industries could contribute to other countries making innovation and efficiency leaps in systems and other processes, Rothwell said.
"This (data) should encourage bigger companies to leverage their influence with community colleges and other programming to make sure there is a pipeline of workers," he said. "For smaller companies who don't have that kind of high-level influence, they should band together and form associations or leverage existing associations and make sure there is a pathway for bringing people on board with the skills they need."