Who is a STEM Worker?

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Written by: Liana Christin Landivar

Did you know that the most common science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupation is software developer? More than 80 percent of STEM workers today are employed in computer occupations or engineering.

Two new Census Bureau reports look at the educational background and the demographic characteristics of STEM workers.

In 2011, there were 7.2 million people employed in STEM occupations, accounting for 6 percent of the workforce. An additional 7.8 million people worked in occupations related to STEM, such as health care.

When we look at the size and composition of the STEM workforce, we can see how it has changed over time, rising from 4 percent in 1970 to 6 percent in 2011.

Engineering employed the most STEM workers until the 1990s. After a surge of employment linked to the expansion of the Internet and computers in daily use, computer occupations surpassed engineering. Currently, engineers make up about a third of STEM employment, while computer workers comprise half of the STEM workforce.

Employment in STEM occupations from 1970 to 2011

Women’s representation in STEM employment has increased since the 1970s, but they remain underrepresented in engineering and computer occupations. In addition, the most recent decades show less growth in STEM employment among younger women. Most of the growth in women’s share of STEM employment among those under 40 occurred between 1970 and 1990.

Employment in STEM also varies by race and Hispanic origin. About 71 percent of STEM workers are non-Hispanic white, followed by Asian (15 percent), Hispanic (7 percent) and Black (6 percent). (The estimates for Black and Hispanic employment in STEM occupations are not statistically different.)  

Standardizing STEM

Industry, government, and academic leaders have increasingly focused on STEM as a key component of innovation and increased economic prosperity. However, until recently, the definition of STEM lacked standardization, making cross-organizational and cross-national comparisons of the STEM workforce difficult.

In April 2012, the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee, a consortium of nine federal agencies charged with standardizing occupational definitions, issued a recommended STEM occupation classification. This classification places workers into three primary occupational domains: STEM, STEM-related, and non-STEM. STEM includes computer workers, engineers, mathematicians and statisticians, life scientists, physical scientists, and social scientists. STEM-related includes architects and health care workers. Non-STEM includes all other occupations. This classification is designed to make comparisons of the STEM workforce more consistent across federal agencies and organizations. The Census Bureau reports issued today are consistent with the new STEM occupation classification.

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