STEMming careers Percent of science, tech, engineering, math jobs above average

The Boeing South Carolina 787 campus in North Charleston likely helped boost the number of local jobs that require science, technology, engineering or math knowledge, or “STEM” for short.

The percentage of jobs in the Charleston metropolitan area that require science, technology, engineering or math knowledge is above the national average, according to a study published today by a prominent Washington think tank.

Using an expanded definition of STEM employment, the Brookings Institution found a fifth of all jobs in the United States have a significant tech component. In the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville area, the figure is 21.3 percent, good enough for 23rd among U.S. metro areas and highest in the state.

This is important because STEM jobs, whether they require a bachelor’s degree or not, tend to pay better than non-STEM jobs. They’re also key ingredients to a stronger, more durable economy, according to Brookings associate fellow Jonathan Rothwel, who authored the study.

“Workers that have this sort of knowledge get paid more but also, arguably, they’re doing something special when it comes to innovation,” he said.

Mary Graham, senior vice president of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the report is “great” news for the relatively small metro area.

“My take is ... health care, SPAWAR and Boeing are the primary drivers of that,” she said. SPAWAR refers to the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic across North Charleston from the Boeing Co. 787 airplane factory.

To compile the report, “The Hidden STEM Economy,” Rothwell used 2011 figures from a U.S. Department of Labor database called O*NET that asked workers what kinds of skills they need to do their jobs.

Using those data, Rothwell determined many more jobs than are STEM than have traditionally been counted that way. His definition now includes not only science PhDs but also lab and medical technicians and manufacturing mechanics who now regularly use computers as part of their jobs.

“The surprising thing is just how many nonprofessional jobs make it when you do that kind of cut,” he said.

Almost one third of the jobs in San Jose metro area are STEM, topping the rankings, while more locally, 19 percent of Columbia’s jobs and 19.8 percent of Greenville’s jobs are STEM.

According to the study, half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year degree, and those workers make, on average, $53,000, which is 10 percent more than jobs with similar educational requirements.

The effect is magnified in the Charleston area where STEM jobs requiring an associate’s degree or less make more than $50,000 on average whereas non-STEM jobs make less than $31,000 on average. Further, some 55 percent of STEM jobs in Charleston don’t require a four-year degree, the 34th-highest percentage among American metros, right behind Greenville.

That’s in keeping with another of the main findings of the report: STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree are clustered in certain metro areas whereas sub-bachelor’s STEM jobs are found in most metros.

The study’s results offer valuable policy lessons, according to Rothwell. Only one-third of people in the U.S. get bachelor’s degrees, Rothwell said, so STEM careers can be the answer for the others.

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“Rather than think of them as just sort of problems, why not invest in their education as well?” he said.

“I wouldn’t suggest that anyone cut funding for research universities,” Rothwell said, “but let’s think about ways to make sure that community college students are getting the support they need.”

South Carolina already seems to be aware of that. Trident Technical College has grown dramatically in recent years, and through the state’s ReadySC program, has trained hundreds if not thousands of workers for Boeing’s North Charleston factories.

Graham said the state might be on the right track, but there’s more to be done.

“I think for us we’ll definitely use this data in working with the public school systems, working to educate both kids and their parents and the general public at large around the fact that STEM jobs are great-paying jobs and they don’t necessarily require that four-year degree,” Graham said. “A four-year-degree or a PhD, that’s great, but that’s not every child’s pathway.”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.