Industry Market Trends

Brookings: "Blue-Collar STEM" is Overlooked, Underfunded

Jun 11, 2013

A new comprehensive report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program underscores that there is hidden STEM talent in blue-collar jobs, and emphasizes how policymakers and leaders should focus more efforts on STEM careers that require associate's degrees to avoid missed opportunities to capture talent.

The Hidden STEM Economy highlights how even though much awareness, training, and federal funding targets professional STEM jobs that require advanced education (a bachelor's degree and higher), more attention should be directed to drawing talent from vocational schools, high schools, and community colleges. Perhaps most noteworthy is the finding that 50 percent of STEM jobs do not require a bachelor's degree.

There is a great disparity in funding for the two prime STEM economies: the corporate and research sector supported by those with graduate-school education, and those in "blue-collar positions," which still require specialized skills. By financial comparison, of the $4.3 billion in federal funding spent on STEM education and training on an annual basis, one-fifth is allotted to sub-bachelor's level training while more than double that amount supports "bachelor's degree or higher level STEM careers."

Yet U.S. economic growth is regularly dependent on the blue-collar workers who are often the support to major corporations and research institutions, and who drive product development and infrastructure growth.

Brookings defines blue-collar occupations as jobs in "installation, maintenance, and repair construction, production, protective services, transportation, farming, forestry, and fishing, building and grounds cleaning and maintenance, healthcare support, personal care, and food preparation." Such occupations, which do not require a four-year degree, account for 30 percent of today's STEM jobs. Even more, the study also notes that these STEM occupations pay 10 percent more than other jobs requiring a similar educational level.

The challenge for STEM sector growth can be attributed to an unclear definition of STEM fields, and, as the report notes, few associations recognize the full scope of STEM employment. Institutions and top policymakers often focus on the professional industries and overlook the blue-collar professions that require high-level STEM knowledge. Yet when considering the full knowledge requirements of these jobs, the STEM field broadens, according to Brookings.

The report notes: "By limiting STEM to professional industries only, STEM jobs account for 4 to 5 percent of total U.S. employment...If one uses a more inclusive approach - a job is STEM if it requires a high-level of knowledge in any one STEM field - then the share increases to 20 percent of all jobs, or 26 million total."

Brookings calls on the federal government to strengthen its support for the STEM economy that produces positions with an associate's degree or less, and emphasizes that it is the local and state governments that are responsible for administrative and funding support.

"The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to a STEM career has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways through community colleges and even technical high schools. This neglect is all the more nonsensical given that roughly half of STEM degrees start their education at community colleges, the report strongly notes, using National Research Council and National Academy of Engineering research.