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STEM Skills Might Not Guarantee Success, but They Sure Improve the Odds

We often write that skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can open doors, even in a tough economy. That view has sparked a few messages and comments from jobless or underemployed STEM professionals who, ahem, see things differently. While we understand their frustration, we stand by our point.

Our STEM Vital Signs research shows that, while a STEM background offers no guarantees—nothing does—it sure does improve the odds. In the past three years, jobless people outnumbered new job postings by more than three to one. In the STEM fields, by contrast, job postings outnumbered the jobless by almost two to one.

Does this mean that every person with a STEM background had an easy time? Sadly, no. For example, our research showed that civil engineers faced long odds. Computer programmers did fine, but not nearly as well as computer systems engineers. And if you lived in Michigan, for example, you probably faced a steeper path than in Virginia or Connecticut.

But our findings do mean that young people coming out of school with strong STEM skills have a better chance, probably a much better chance, of a stable and high-paying career. They have more choices.

Even if you take out healthcare jobs, which many other analyses of the STEM workforce leave out of account, people with STEM backgrounds fared much better on average than those without. But then again, why exclude healthcare jobs? Wouldn’t most people want their doctors and nurses to have more than a passing acquaintance with math, chemistry or biology, for example? (Our analysis included only healthcare jobs that require strong STEM skills.)

Have a look at the two maps below. The first shows the prospects for jobless people in all fields. The second shows the prospects for jobless people with a STEM background. Cool colors (the blues) are bad. Warm colors (the red/peaches) are good. Where would you cast your own lot?

(Click on any state to get more data. Move the map to reveal Alaska or Hawaii. Zoom in to get a better view of the smaller states.)

All occupations: ratio of unemployed people to job postings, 2009-2012


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STEM occupations: ratio of job postings to unemployed people, 2009-2012

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Source: Change the Equation, STEM Help Wanted, 2012. See the study’s methodology.

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