STEM perspectives: Attitudes, opportunities, and barriers in America’s STEM workforce

July 15, 2020 Daniel A. Cox

Key Points

  • A strong majority of STEM graduates are satisfied in their jobs, and relatively few regret their major choice. When asked if they would recommend a STEM career to a young person, 95 percent of STEM workers with a STEM degree say yes.
  • At the same time, over half of STEM degree-holders say the phrase “people feel like they are generally replaceable” describes the field very or somewhat well, and over 40 percent say that STEM employers would rather hire new workers than train current ones.
  • Forty percent of STEM degree-holders say women face more obstacles in STEM than they do in other industries, 30 percent say the same of African Americans, and nearly 50 percent say the same of older Americans. Further, women and associate degree-holders are significantly more likely to leave the STEM field than are their male or bachelor’s and graduate degree-holding counterparts.
  • STEM workers say that noncognitive skills such as writing and communication are significantly more important on the job than high-level math, analytical, or computer skills.

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Introduction

STEM disciplines are often recommended as the most direct path between education and a good, high-wage career. From public policy to student career counseling, encouraging STEM credentials and degrees has been at the center of American educational, employment, and economic strategy for decades. The question arises whether we have gone too far in promoting STEM as a pathway to career success. What do current and former STEM workers think about the field in which they work?

In a new national survey, AEI examines how people with STEM degrees perceive the working conditions, opportunities, and barriers to success in STEM occupations. For STEM-credentialed individuals who either never worked in STEM or have left the field, we also explore their reasons for opting for other career pathways.

Like most workers, the survey finds that a strong majority of STEM graduates are satisfied in their jobs.1 Relative to other degree holders, few STEM graduates regret their major choice,2 and most are confident that the STEM field offers about the same or better opportunities than other fields do in pay, opportunities for advancement, ability to make a meaningful contribution to society, collegiality among colleagues, and more. Although there is some variation among subgroups, most current STEM workers do not seem concerned about the impact of automation or foreign competition on their jobs, and relatively few have seriously considered leaving the field. When asked if they would recommend a STEM career to a young person, 95 percent of STEM workers with a STEM degree said yes.

Some responses, however, provide cause for concern—especially for women, minorities, and workers with less than a bachelor’s degree in STEM occupations. Over half of STEM degree holders say the statement “people feel like they are generally replaceable” describes the field very or somewhat well, and more than four in 10 say that employers would rather hire new workers than train current ones. Women are more likely than men are to regret choosing a STEM degree, and over 40 percent of STEM degree holders say women face more obstacles in STEM than they do in other fields. (Among female respondents, this number rises to over 50 percent.) Similarly, over 30 percent of all STEM degree holders say black Americans face more obstacles in STEM than they do in other industries (more than 40 percent of nonwhite respondents say the same), and nearly half of current STEM workers say older Americans face more barriers in STEM than they do in other fields.

The survey also examines who is leaving STEM and why. Among those who have left STEM during their working life, the most common reasons cited are a change in career interests or family responsibilities, while about four in 10 point to additional factors such as feeling undervalued, lack of competitive salary or benefits, and few opportunities for advancement. Women and associate degree holders are more likely to leave the STEM field than are their male or bachelor’s and graduate degree-holding counterparts. There is at least some evidence that those with less than a bachelor’s degrees are more likely to cite a lack of opportunity for advancement in the workplace and job elimination from automation as reasons for leaving the field.3

Consistent with recent literature, the survey finds that STEM workers identify noncognitive and interpersonal skills as important in their job, especially among female STEM workers and older workers who are more advanced in their careers. Nearly half of STEM workers say good written and communication skills are extremely important in their job, and nearly 70 percent say the same of critical thinking skills. By comparison, only 36 percent of STEM workers said high-level math, analytical, or computer skills—generally thought to be core skills for STEM occupations—were extremely important in their job. Notably, the importance of noncognitive or implicit skills on the job increases as workers age, while the importance of technical skills remains relatively constant.

Findings in the survey will provide workers, employers, policymakers, and concerned citizens with a more nuanced picture of the experience and outlook of STEM graduates in the workforce. While the education and media narrative around STEM centers on the outsized influence of Big Tech and a belief that STEM training offers a sure path to career security, AEI’s survey of STEM graduates provides the reader with fresh perspective on STEM through the eyes of STEM workers. For a majority of STEM graduates, a STEM career provides a path to a fulfilling and sustainable career. For others—particularly minorities, women, and those with less education—the reality is more complex, revealing a need for greater intentionality by employers, educators, and policymakers to promote a more holistic training agenda and a more inclusive STEM workplace environment.

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Notes

  1. For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 80 percent of American workers were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their current job. Pew Research Center, “The State of American Jobs,” October 6, 2016, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/10/06/3-how-americans-view-their-jobs/.
  2. A 2017 Strada-Gallup poll found that 40 percent of bachelor’s degree holders say they would have chosen a different major. By contrast, only 20 percent of STEM graduates say they would have chosen a different major. Strada Education Network and Gallup, “On Second Thought: U.S. Adults Reflect on Their Education Decisions,” June 2017, https://news.gallup.com/reports/225161/2017-strada-gallup-college-student-survey.aspx.
  3. There are only 80 associate degree holders who formerly worked in STEM in the sample. Results should be interpreted with caution.

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