Industry Market Trends

Leadership Q&A Series: Nicole Smith, Georgetown University

Apr 08, 2013

ThomasNet, publisher of IMT Career Journal, on April 1 launched the ThomasNet North American Manufacturing Scholarship program to actively help the manufacturing sector close the STEM skills gap, providing up to 30 scholarships of $1,000 each to high-achieving students pursue their dreams in engineering, skilled trades, and supply chain management/business operations. Students have until July 1 to apply.

In conjunction with the new scholarship from ThomasNet, IMT Career Journal's Leadership Q&A Series speaks with leaders in both academia and industry about pertinent issues affecting STEM education and workforce development. Here, we sought Nicole Smith, a research professor and senior economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), for her insights into STEM education and careers.

nicole_smith_headSmith, a graduate with honors in economics and mathematics from the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, in Trinidad, and a Ph.D. recipient in economics from American University in Washington, D.C., addresses key issues, including salary prospects based on postsecondary degrees and making STEM careers more accessible.

IMT Career Journal: There's no shortage of data indicating that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to graduate enough scientists and engineers to meet the expected needs for future economic growth. What can be done to produce enough talent to fill STEM jobs in the coming years?

Smith: Unfortunately, our research does not provide policy prescriptions on what can be done to produce enough STEM talent. Instead, it points to obvious holes in the reasoning that we can easily divert existing students into STEM fields by making STEM "fun."

Based on a detailed database of incumbent workers, called the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), we've done an empirical analysis to determine which competencies are highly associated with STEM occupations. Job performance and job satisfaction are partially dependent on the extent to which jobs match individuals' work interests and work values. The traditional work values linked to persistence and satisfaction in STEM occupations are achievement, independence, and recognition. The traditional work interests linked to success in STEM occupations are "realistic" and "investigative." STEM talent can divert into other occupations when STEM jobs, as traditionally constructed, do not satisfy or are perceived to not satisfy particular work values.

IMT Career Journal: A four-year university degree is just one option for students attaining valuable STEM-related knowledge and skills. Do you see community colleges, vocational schools, and other alternatives to four-year universities becoming more integral to producing a world-class STEM workforce?

Smith: Definitely. Despite the educational intensity of the fields, there will also be over 799,000 job openings available in STEM occupations for workers with less than a bachelor's degree -- 35 percent of all STEM jobs. Using, a self-reported survey, we find that many of these [require] certifications [and] are IT-related and include "CompTIA A+ Service Technician" and "Microsoft Office Specialist, Excel Certification."

Not only are these STEM middle jobs available, they pay well. People in STEM occupations earn an average $14,000 extra per year at every education level over other occupations except at the master's and better level. A person with some college or a postsecondary vocational certificate who works in an engineering or engineering-technician occupation earns $29,000 per year more than a person with a bachelor's degree who works as a high school teacher.

IMT Career Journal: The high cost of college education in the U.S. today means a college degree is out of reach for many. How important are scholarships and other financial aid in reducing this significant barrier?

Smith: Particularly for women and minorities, diversity takes on a broader meaning in STEM. We must make STEM careers more accessible to African Americans, Hispanics, women, and people from low-income families, who have had little access to the substantial earnings and prestige that STEM jobs offer. Equity demands it, but so does the economy. The market is made up of a variety of consumers who have different tastes, experiences, and lifestyles that is reflected in available products and services. That is true for the development of medicine as much as consumer products.

IMT Career Journal: Degrees in some STEM fields offer better employment prospects than others. What are some key STEM majors that have the most promising hiring and earnings outlooks in the coming years?

Smith: The bottom line is the demand for STEM competencies outside of STEM occupations is strong and growing. Longitudinal data analysis reveals that STEM students tend to move into non-STEM occupations that can pay better and offer better working conditions.

Ph.D.s in biological sciences and chemistry have relatively high unemployment rates and declining wages. For terminal degrees, engineering and computer science options are still the best-paying entry-level positions that maintain a premium over one's lifetime. Specifically, engineers, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration are some of the highest-paying majors. An experienced college graduate with a chemical engineering degree earns $94,000 on average, while the general engineer earns $75,000 on average. Health sciences majors have the lowest unemployment rates of the list of majors in our analysis -- below 3 percent.

IMT Career Journal: Women and minorities remain underrepresented in STEM fields, confirmed by a 2011 report you co-authored. Can you comment on this?

Smith: STEM remains the best equal-opportunity employer for women and minorities. Especially at the entry level, the wage premium between men and women in STEM is relatively small -- a 5 percent difference -- and is substantially smaller than the average for all occupations. However, due to the large potential for diversion to other occupations, this wage gap increases with age.

When compared with white workers, African Americans earn $7,600 less between the ages of 25 and 29, and just over $15,000 less when a 45-to-49-year-old Asian works in STEM. Indeed, Asian men can earn an average $7,000 more than do white men in STEM and twice that amount compared with African-American men in STEM. While there are racial and ethnic disparities in earnings among STEM workers, the gap is not nearly as wide as it is among non-STEM workers.


Read additional IMT Career Journal Leadership Q&A Series interviews:

Leadership Q&A Series: Greg Pearson, National Academy of Engineering

Leadership Q&A Series: Melissa Carl, American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Leadership Q&A Series: Patrick Cushing, WorkHands