The STEM Situation in the United States

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) play a vital role in industrialized and knowledge-based economies. Thus, there is particular attention to these fields when a country weighs its current standing in the global economy. The president of the United States spent several sentences on this issue in his inaugural speech months ago. STEM issues, however, are not easily distilled or summarized in a simple picture. Very recently, the Economics Policy Institute (EPI) published a paper that suggested that in terms of the STEM workforce, the United States actually does not face a serious shortage. In "Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market", Salzman, Kuehl and Lowell demonstrated by analyzing current statistics on both education and employment that "the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations."

The following figures copied from the EPI paper illustrate the arguments made by the authors. First, although the US may seem lagging behind other countries in international exams on math and the sciences, the US still holds a significant share of the best performing students in these fields:

Shares of OECD countries’ high-performing students

Above figure copied from "Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market"
Second, among high school graduates, only a small percentage, 2.5%, actually enters a job in a STEM field. This is smaller than the 4% who actually receives a STEM degree:

Percent of high school graduates going to college, graduating, and then entering a STEM job

And to drive the argument home, STEM graduates are finding employment in their field not as a given. In the figure below, employment of STEM graduates in their respective STEM field is far from 100%:

Occupational field of STEM college majors one year after graduation, 2009

One must keep in mind that the data above tackle only one aspect of STEM education. The above only deals with the fraction of the population that will in fact practice in a specific and well-defined STEM field. STEM education probably has no problems if only the cream of the crop requires consideration. However, STEM goes far beyond the field itself as both science and math touch human lives in so many dimensions.

The EPI concentrates on jobs that are specifically or directly associated with STEM. This completely ignores the fact that STEM is now part of almost every issue man faces. Skills in STEM are now required to participate productively in society. Thus, the EPI study misses one important point that was laid out by a study done by the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute:

To view this entire report, visit
The slides for this report can be viewed at
Finally, current important issues the world is facing, like sustainability and climate change, require a citizenry that is able to understand the math and science behind these issues. The following video illustrates this dilemma in a very concrete fashion:


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