You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to get a good-paying job that incorporates science, technology, engineering or math.
A little more than half such jobs — known in workforce lingo as STEM jobs — are performed by people with an associate degree or less, according to a report from Brookings.
They are nurses and medical technicians, and the builders, operators and mechanics who turn innovation into commercial enterprise.
At a time when labor’s share of income is falling across the United States and the globe, the report offers some encouragement for workers who are looking for new opportunities but lack a college degree. Technical blue-collar jobs pay far above what can be earned in a non-STEM field with the same level of education, providing a path to the middle class.
“Not all workers need formal college-level skills, but they do need to master a specific body of knowledge,” Jonathan Rothwell wrote in the Brookings Institution report. “Entry-level occupations in factories no longer pay high wages, but occupations requiring education, experience, or training in STEM fields do, even for those requiring less than four years of postsecondary education.”
In the Twin Cities, 22 percent of all employment — 366,520 jobs — is in a science, technology, engineering or math field, according to the Brookings report. That’s 19th among the country’s top 100 metro areas.
“Our medical device manufacturing, I bet that has a great deal to say about our ranking,” said Steve Hine, labor market economist for the state.
While the Twin Cities science and technology job market skews toward people with higher education, 44 percent of STEM jobs are held by people who never got a four-year college degree, according to Brookings, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.
These blue-collar technical workers advise researchers, build and repair new machines, and oversee production of new goods. They “make the commercialization of those ideas and inventions feasible and profitable at every point in the supply chain,” the report said.
These jobs pay dramatically more than non-STEM jobs, even with very little postsecondary education. Average wages for a STEM worker with no more than an associate degree in Minnesota — like a building trade or a job maintaining expensive machinery — is $57,247. The average wage for someone with the same level of education who’s not in a STEM field is $34,834.
The Brookings analysis also showed that higher concentrations of blue-collar STEM jobs are associated with lower levels of income inequality.
As more of health care and manufacturing is automated, it’s no surprise that the jobs left behind are more complex and pay better than low-skill jobs, Hine said. Ten years ago, a factory worker was putting parts on a machine and pressing a button. Today, he might need to read blueprints and run a computer program.
“What we commonly classify as being blue-collar jobs have become increasingly demanding, in terms of the successful employee’s proficiencies,” Hine said.
The Brookings report, titled “The Hidden STEM Economy,” broadens the definition of STEM jobs to include those that require high levels of science, technology, engineering and math knowledge. A more common definition is narrower, including mostly just jobs that would require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“There is not a universally held definition of what constitutes STEM jobs,” Hine said. “It’s like green jobs. There’s shades of STEM.”
According to the federal definition, which does not include health care jobs, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities awarded 2,200 associate’s degrees in STEM fields in 2009, the most recent year for which data is readily available.
“People think about these as being jobs for mostly engineers or scientists,” said Mary Rothchild, director of strategic partnerships and workforce development at MnSCU.
But every engineer, scientist or doctor requires a network of skilled technical support, and those jobs can provide a classic middle-income livelihood, Rothchild said. “We would strongly agree ... that there’s a great deal of opportunity in STEM-related fields.”