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Does majoring in STEM lead to careers?


Last updated 7/17/2021 at 12:21pm

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Less than a third of STEM-educated workers actually end up working in the STEM career field.

Majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) does not guarantee a job in a STEM occupation but it typically means a bump in pay.

Among the 50 million employed college graduates ages 25 to 64 in 2019, 37% reported a bachelor's degree in science or engineering but only 14% worked in a STEM occupation, according to the Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey 1-year estimates.

This translates into less than a third (28%) of STEM-educated workers actually work in a STEM job.

STEM workers who majored in a STEM field in college typically made higher salaries than those who did not: on average, $101,100 vs. $87,600.

STEM jobs include computer occupations, mathematicians and statisticians, engineers, life scientists, and physical and social scientists. About half of the STEM jobs were in computer occupations and another 29% in engineering in 2019.

STEM workers who majored in a STEM field in college typically made higher salaries than those who did not: on average, $101,100 vs. $87,600.

The vast majority (62%) of college-educated workers who majored in a STEM field were employed in non-STEM fields such as non-STEM management, law, education, social work, accounting or counseling. In addition, 10% of STEM college graduates worked in STEM-related occupations such as health care.

The path to STEM jobs for non-STEM majors was narrow. Only a few STEM-related majors (7%) and non-STEM majors (6%) ultimately ended up in STEM occupations.

STEM job opportunities differ by field

About half of workers who majored in engineering (52%) or computer, mathematics, and statistics majors (51%) worked in STEM.

The difference between those who majored in engineering and computer, mathematics, and statistics majors was not statistically significant.

That means that about as many people with a computer or engineering background were just as likely to be employed in non-STEM occupations. Some may have worked in STEM initially but transitioned later to a non-STEM occupation such as management.

Workers who studied other types of STEM majors found employment in STEM occupations at much lower rates.

Just over a quarter of physical science majors (28%), for example, were employed in STEM. The percentages were even lower for STEM majors in biology, environmental, and agricultural science (16%), psychology (10%) and social science (9%).

In addition, STEM jobs attracted more workers with advanced degrees. About 40% of college-educated STEM workers had a graduate degree.

Different paths for foreign- and native-born workers

The global contribution to America's economy was especially visible in the STEM workforce: 29% of college-educated STEM workers were foreign-born.

This was most notable in the tech sector, where foreign-born people made up about a third of computer workers with a college degree and about half with a graduate degree.

The high proportion of foreign-born workers in these fields may reflect corporate recruitment for specific positions through the H1B visa program, which is designed to bring in workers to fill positions that require specialized skills.

Workers in these positions tended to earn premium wages. This may account for the higher median earnings of foreign-born workers compared with their native-born counterparts.

Native-born STEM workers (who did not go through the visa screening filter) were less likely than their foreign-born counterparts to have a STEM-major (69% vs 81%).

Majoring in STEM pays off

There was an earnings boost for STEM majors in all STEM occupation groups, except for life scientists such as biologists and agricultural and food scientists.

Highest and lowest earners

STEM-educated workers in computer occupations had the highest median annual earnings among STEM occupations at $105,300. Engineers were a close second, earning a median $102,200 a year. Life scientists earned the least, at $66,540 a year.

Jennifer Cheeseman Day is a demographer in the Census Bureau's Communication Directorate.

Anthony Martinez is a survey statistician in the Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division.


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