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Report: science and engineering workforce stagnant

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There's been much hand-wringing lately among policy-makers and business leaders about America's shortage of engineers and scientists. Not only do these occupations provide stable, high-paying jobs, they boost the nation's prospects as it strives to compete globally in innovation and economic growth.

A new analysis by the Population Reference Bureau found that America's science and engineering workforce isn't growing -- and in fact has declined slightly since the booming economy of the 1990s. The report, out in February, is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

It determined that between 1990 and 2000, science and engineering jobs made up a growing percentage of the labor force: 4.4 percent in 1990, jumping to 5.3 percent in 2009. By 2010, however, that figure had declined to 4.9 percent. The report's authors note that this percentage isn't too different from 20 years ago -- which they consider especially worrying since other countries, especially China, are producing scientists and engineers at rapid rates.

The dominance of foreign scientists and engineers is evident even in this country, where the foreign-born make up an increasingly large share of the science and engineering workforce. In 1990, they accounted for 11 percent of it. By 2000, they made up 17 percent, and by 2010, they made up 21 percent. The majority of these workers came from Asia: In 2009, 60 percent of them came from Asian countries, especially China, India, the Philippines and Taiwan. 

So why isn't America churning out scientists and engineers more quickly? The answers to that question are complex and multifaceted and likely have to do with factors as diverse as America's public education system and trends in outsourcing and global competition.

According to the report, it's possible that a portion of scientists and engineers are aging out of the workforce, without enough young workers moving in to replace them. Attracting young people to these professions is an ongoing challenge -- one potentially made more difficult by the rising unemployment rates of scientists and engineers in the last few years.

Unemployment in science and engineering has been low compared to the unemployment rate as a whole, which hit 10.8 percent in 2010, the report points out. But it still rose sharply during the recession: from 2.6 percent in 2007 to 5.6 percent in 2010. The job losses were particularly steep for architects, whose unemployment rate went from 2 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2010.

But the report's authors are careful to point out that trends vary across states and geographic regions. Certain states saw gains in their science and engineering labor forces. Between 2007 and 2010, Texas added 18,000 of them, and Virginia added 19,000. Other areas, including a couple of states hit hard by the recession, saw substantial losses. New Jersey lost 28,000, Michigan lost 22,000 and Ohio lost 19,000, for example.

The report also noted areas where the concentration of science and engineering workers was highest in 2010. As you might expect given the large numbers of scientists and engineers employed by the federal government, Washington, D.C., topped the list of states, with 10 percent. It was followed by Maryland and Virginia, with 8 percent each, and Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, with 7 percent each.

Last Updated: 16/05/2012 - 10:23 AM

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