The Research Triangle’s strength in STEM work – jobs requiring skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is no secret. R&D work that discovers new drugs or develops new software understandably requires STEM knowledge. But the STEM economy is broader and more pervasive than most people think.

Service jobs that support life science and tech companies involve highly skilled work that requires STEM skills. So too does modern manufacturing. That means that STEM work, estimated by the National Science Foundation and others to comprise just 5 percent of U.S. jobs, actually comprises as much as 20 percent of the workforce. Those findings are part of a new report from the Brookings Institution on the STEM economy.

Brookings analyzed federal data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics and to assess STEM work in the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas by population. The Brookings analysis included three North Carolina metro areas: Raleigh-Cary, Greensboro-High Point, and Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill. (Durham, a separate metropolitan statistical area from Raleigh, was not in the top 100.) (Note: N.C. metro area breakdowns are available in this post.

According to the Brookings report, the United States had nearly 26 million STEM jobs in 2011. Of those 26 million jobs, only half of them required a bachelor’s degree or higher. Brookings’ wider definition of STEM work includes blue collar jobs that have not been traditionally regarded as STEM work, explained Jonathan Rothwell, associate fellow, Metropolitan Policy at Brookings and author of the report. Not every blue collar job is a STEM job, but these days, a growing number of them are.

“Blue collar workers have always been highly skilled, for whatever reason, we haven’t thought of them that way,” he said. “One of the things we’re trying to do with this report is to say that they should be considered STEM workers.”

Blue collar’ STEM work

How does the picture of North Carolina’s STEM economy change under Brookings’ broader definition? In some parts of the state, half of the available STEM jobs don’t require an advanced degree. Of Raleigh-Cary’s 108,580 STEM jobs in 2011, 43.8 percent required an associate’s degree or less. In Greensboro-High Point, 57.6 percent of STEM jobs were available to those with an associates’ degree or less. In the Charlotte metro area, 48.1 percent of STEM jobs required an associates’ degree or less.

Rothwell says STEM has been part of the economy since the Industrial Revolution. The early machinists who worked in factories were STEM workers. But even though manufacturing has never been regarded as STEM work, that’s changing.

It’s true that some manufacturing has gone overseas. But the manufacturing that remains is more technical and produces higher value products, Rothwell said. This work, such as producing chemicals and pharmaceuticals as well as the manufacturing of components in electronics, automobiles and aviation, increasingly requires STEM skills. Brookings calculates that as much as 30 percent of U.S. manufacturing work requires STEM skills.

Even the financial services, a major component of the Charlotte economy, needs STEM workers. Banking requires analysts and actuaries, workers who need a high level of math skills, Rothwell explains. Also, the software and hardware that are used by financial institutions requires maintenance and IT support. That, Rothwell says, is STEM work.

Brookings studied the 100 largest metro areas because that analysis covers 65 percent of the U.S. population. In a major metro area, the STEM work is driven by the industry native to that location. In Raleigh and the Triangle, STEM work is driven by the life sciences and technology companies prominent in the local economy. In Houston, STEM work is driven by the energy industry.

But rural areas are not excluded from the need for STEM skills. Most of the country’s energy extraction work is concentrated in sparsely populated states such as Wyoming and Alaska. This work should also be considered STEM work, Rothwell said. Even when considering STEM work not linked a to particular industry, STEM work can be found evenly distributed throughout the country, Rothwell said. Hospitals, utilities and construction offer STEM work that doesn’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. According to Brookings findings, most STEM work is in health care and manufacturing – two industries that are not necessarily tied to particular geographic locations.

“Almost every city and town has a substantial number of these types of workers because they’re really essential to the function of these cities,” Rothwell said.

Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center, or SMT, agrees with Brookings conclusions. Many people think STEM is about getting a Ph.D and being a scientist but that’s not true, Houston said. STEM is not just math and science. It’s reasoning and calculation. Those are skills that can be applied in just about any field.

There are many paths to the future that do require study beyond high school but don’t necessarily require a graduate degree or even a bachelor’s degree, Houston said.

“STEM is everywhere, you’ve got to learn how to deal with it or you’re going to be left out,” he said.

Planning STEM education for the future

SMT is tracking North Carolina’s STEM progress over time. Houston says North Carolina is doing well but needs to do better. Doing better will come with changes to infrastructure, such as expanding the availability of broadband throughout the state in rural as well as urban areas, and also changing the structure of education in ways that makes STEM relevant to students.

Brookings says its study could have implications for federal funding of STEM education, which totals roughly $4.3 billion a year. The money supports scholarships and programs that encourage students to pursue and stay in STEM studies. But just one-fifth of that spending supports studies below bachelor’s degree level. If nearly half of STEM jobs require an associates’ degree or less, Rothwell says an argument could be made that community colleges should receive more.

The Wake Technical Community College system is among those devoting more resources to STEM. Spokeswoman Laurie Clowers says Wake Tech’s STEM initiatives include new STEM Centers that provide resources and help for any student in STEM programs. Wake Tech also has a new Women in STEM (pronounced “wisdom”) Learning Community, which offers women-only science and math classes, taught by women.

Rothwell said that Brookings is not advocating for particular policy changes or spending decisions. Following this report, which represents nearly two years of research and analysis, the next step would be to do additional research on how community colleges are recruiting and retaining students in STEM. Research also needs to be done in the challenges that community colleges are facing. Ideally, this research would be matched with industry research into the kinds of skills and jobs that employers are having the hardest time filling. That information can guide policy decisions about funding and curriculum decisions at community colleges.

Houston says the discussion is already underway in North Carolina.

“The great challenge that we have is no longer can anyone in our economy be left out of this discussion,” Houston said. “ Young people today either will be prepared for the new economy or they’ll be left out of the new economy. It’s not an either or. We need to make sure that every person in our schools gets a chance to be productive.”