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The Science and Engineering Workforce: The Long-Term View


The size of the scientific workforce must keep pace with the expanding opportunities in science and engineering (S&E) fields. Paradoxically, although the number of jobs in S&E fields has grown and is predicted to continue to grow in the foreseeable future, the percentage of U.S. citizens and permanent residents entering science fields is, and has been, constant or declining. This finding prompted the National Science Board (NSB) to initiate a study of the long-term workforce needs of the nation and their implications for future policy.

The result of this 2-year study is the recently released report entitled The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential . This report addresses the long-term workforce needs of the country in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology fields and concludes that we are underproducing U.S. students who major in S&E fields.

Longer-term outlook improving

Like all markets, the job market in science fluctuates. We are currently at a low point in the economic cycle and S&E jobs have declined somewhat, but the long-term outlook is strong and positive. For the NSB, it was important to look beyond these short-term fluctuations to the long-term needs of the nation. The scientific training required of individuals in S&E fields must start early. Strong science education must start in elementary school and progress through high school and college. We must ensure that domestic students are well trained and are competitive for the new jobs created as science and technology fields expand. The board concluded that the federal government must step forward to ensure the adequacy of the U.S. S&E workforce. All stakeholders must mobilize and initiate efforts that increase the number of U.S. citizens pursuing S&E studies and careers.

Fortunately for us, the United States is a magnet for talented students with temporary visas from abroad. Many of the students from abroad who train in this country choose to stay; they have provided an excellent pool of workers in S&E fields. But we are not the only country competing for this talent pool. Global competition for S&E talent is intensifying; the United States may not be able to rely indefinitely on the international S&E labor market to fill our unmet needs. Several economies with growing science and technology workforces--including Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland, and China--have been successful already in encouraging their nationals to return after advanced training and research abroad.

Who, then, will do these jobs? The number of native-born S&E graduates entering the workforce is likely to decline unless we intervene to ensure greater success in educating S&E students from all demographic groups.

Students from groups that have been underrepresented in S&E careers are of particular concern. In 1998, the rate of natural S&E degree attainment for males was 8 per 100 in the under-24-year-old population, compared to only 5 per 100 for women. Likewise, 6 per 100 whites, 15 per 100 Asians, and only 3 per 100 from underrepresented minority groups earned S&E degrees. Groups now underrepresented in S&E will account for an increasing share of the college-age population, growing from 32% in 2000 to 38% in 2025. Hispanics will account for 90% of the increase from underrepresented groups. If we are to succeed in increasing the number of students entering S&E, we must succeed in recruiting students from these groups into science in larger numbers.

Traditional and Nontraditional Paths

S&E fields offer good career opportunities; yet fewer than half the students who enter college intending to major in S&E actually complete bachelor's degrees in these fields. Women and underrepresented minorities are less likely to complete a baccalaureate in S&E than majority males. The share of the college-age population that is "traditional"--the group most likely to complete a science or engineering degree--is declining. Today only one in four students is traditional--only one in four enrolls in a 4-year college directly after high school and receives financial support from parents.

Part of the reason that more students are pursuing "nontraditional" paths to degrees is the rising cost of higher education, but other factors, too, inhibit access for nontraditional students. Traditional S&E curricula are built on prerequisites, limited course offerings, and laboratory work, all of which might be incompatible with the practical constraints of nontraditional students.

Access to degree programs is also an issue; top S&E programs may be unavailable to nontraditional students. If we are to increase the number of scientists and engineers, we need to ensure adequate institutional capacity and accessible high-quality degree programs. Many institutions, both 4-year and 2-year, need additional revenue sources to increase capacity. The board therefore concluded that the federal government must direct substantial new support to both students and institutions in order to improve success in S&E study by American undergraduates from all demographic groups.

The board report showed that opportunity costs for American students interested in pursuing advanced degrees in S&E were very high in comparison with those in some other fields and in comparison with those of students on temporary visas. To make graduate studies more attractive for our domestic students, federal support for research and graduate and postdoctoral education should respond to the real economic needs of students and promote a wider range of educational options responsive to national needs.

In conclusion:

  • Data on trends on U.S. scientists and engineers do not indicate an immediate crisis. However, they provide strong evidence of a critical need for national attention to retaining the U.S. global advantage in human resources for S&E.

  • Continual renewal of our S&E workforce is essential--drawing from both domestic and international talent.

  • The federal government is uniquely qualified to coordinate activities that can benefit our S&E workforce at the national and global levels.

Federal leadership is critically needed if we are to obtain the proper mix of S&E skills in the workforce and to achieve equitable participation by talented Americans from all demographic groups.

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