Postsecondary Education and STEM Employment in the United States

An Analysis of National Trends with a Focus on the Natural Gas and Oil Industry

by Matthew D. Baird, Robert Bozick, Mark Harris

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Research Questions

  1. What are the trends in STEM postsecondary degree attainment across the past decade?
  2. What is the relationship between attaining a STEM postsecondary degree and employment outcomes?
  3. Does attaining a license or certification improve employment outcomes beyond traditional postsecondary degrees?

This report aims to contribute new knowledge to understanding the role that postsecondary education — including bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees, and sub-baccalaureate credentialing programs — plays in meeting the increasing demands of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, and particularly in the oil and natural gas industry. As the economy becomes increasingly reliant on workers with strong quantitative and analytical skills, there is a growing need for policymakers to identify efficient ways to prepare all youth — including those not continuing on to college — for careers in STEM. As part of the study, the authors analyze data from three national data sources: the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the American Community Survey, and the Current Population Survey. The study indicates that the receipt of a bachelor's degree in a STEM field and the attainment of a certification or license (in any field) are important educational milestones that support success in the STEM labor market. However, in both absolute and relative numbers, women and racial or ethnic minorities are less likely to earn these critical degrees and to enter STEM employment. Without stronger support for these traditionally underrepresented groups, the STEM economy in general and the oil and natural gas industry in particular may fail to optimize the pool of potential workers that it needs to sustain growth and innovation.

Key Findings

Trends in STEM Postsecondary Degree Attainment Between 2003 and 2015

  • The number of overall bachelor's degrees and the number of bachelor's degrees in STEM fields increased substantially over the past decade.
  • While the number of associate's degrees also increased over the past decade, the number of associate's degrees awarded in STEM fields remained flat.
  • Women earn more bachelor's degrees overall but earn fewer STEM bachelor's degrees than men, resulting in a large gender gap in the proportion of bachelor's degrees that are STEM.
  • The share of bachelor's degrees that are in STEM fields varies considerably by race/ethnicity.

Relationship Among STEM Bachelor's Degree Attainment, STEM Employment, and Employment Outcomes

  • There is a large increase in wages associated with having a STEM bachelor's degree and with working in a STEM occupation.
  • Oil and natural gas industry jobs pay significantly higher hourly wages.
  • Women experience a larger increase than men in hourly wages, on average, for working in a STEM occupation.
  • Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to work in STEM jobs compared with whites, and when they do procure STEM jobs, they earn less than whites.

Relationship Between Attaining a License or Certification and Employment Outcomes

  • Possessing a license or certification is associated with an increased probability of employment, but not necessarily higher wages.
  • The benefits of holding a license or certification are strongest for those lacking a high school diploma, women, and Hispanics.
  • The benefits associated with certifications and licenses were mostly for overall employment and employment in STEM jobs.

Recommendations

  • The findings suggest that attaining a license or certification is a possible avenue for improving employment outcomes for traditionally underrepresented groups. This warrants further research.
  • Women and racial or ethnic minorities are less likely to earn bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. Without stronger support for these traditionally underrepresented groups, the STEM economy in general and the oil and natural gas industry in particular may fail to optimize the pool of potential workers that it needs to sustain growth and innovation.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Trends in STEM Postsecondary Degree Attainment

  • Chapter Three

    Relationship Among STEM Bachelor's Degree Attainment, STEM Employment, and Employment Outcomes

  • Chapter Four

    Relationship Between Postsecondary Licenses or Certifications and Employment Outcomes

  • Chapter Five

    Summary and Conclusion

  • Appendix A

    STEM Degrees

  • Appendix B

    STEM Occupations and Industry Groupings

  • Appendix C

    Analytic Methods

  • Appendix D

    Additional Tables and Figures

This research was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute and undertaken jointly by RAND Labor and Population and RAND Education.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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