For students and recent graduates, the money is in maths and engineering

Most of the highest paying jobs in the US require degrees in science, technology, engineering or maths, and students know it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 3:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 3:43am

For those trained in law, social sciences and the arts, I have some bad news: the best days may be over because the future belongs to scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

In high school and university classrooms across the United States, a quiet revolution is under way as students adapt to a difficult job market by choosing more quantitative disciplines.

Nearly all the highest-paid jobs in the United States require training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) disciplines.

More than 30 of the 50 best-paid occupations in the United States require graduate or postgraduate training in Stem subjects, including medical sciences, according to pay data collected by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics as part of its annual survey of Occupational Employment and Wages.

In response, annual enrolments in undergraduate Stem programmes have jumped by almost 700,000 (23 per cent) to 3.7 million between 2003 and 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the US Department of Education.

Pay incentives as well as the associated professional prestige are steering students towards the highly numerate training needed to be financially successful in an economy dominated by computers, data analysis, engineering and complex technology.

North America's oil and gas boom is just one example of how financial incentives are shaping the educational choices of a new generation.

Average earnings for qualified petroleum engineers shot up from US$87,000 in 2003 to US$149,000 in 2011, a 70 per cent increase, at a time when earnings across the whole economy have been struggling to keep pace with inflation.

Enrolments in graduate petroleum engineering programmes have soared from 561 in 1997 and 849 in 2003 to 1,301 in 2011.

But the shift is not confined to oil and gas. Enrolments in all engineering sciences reached 146,000 in 2011, up from 120,000 in 2003 and 100,000 in 1997.

Average pay for mathematicians rose 34 per cent between 2003 and 2013. Pay for operations research analysts was up 32 per cent. Statisticians saw their average earnings rise 34 per cent. There were also better-than-average increases for materials engineers (39 per cent), aerospace engineers (39 per cent) and naval architects (31 per cent).

But average earnings for all occupations rose 25 per cent.

For years, US politicians and educators have worried about the declining competitiveness of the US economy and the rise of rivals, especially in Asia.

Much of that concern was based on the increasing number of engineers and scientists being produced by universities in China and the developing world.

"[We are] deeply concerned that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength," the National Research Council, an umbrella group for the US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, warned in 2007.

It called for the federal government to play a key role by recruiting more teachers, providing more scholarships and paying for more research and development.

But the market is already well on the way to correcting the problem on its own. Stem subjects promise higher pay, greater opportunities, and more job security. Prospective students are responding by altering their educational and career choices accordingly.

But the outlook for students with non-Stem degrees is much less optimistic.

In the next decade, the real division will not be between the United States and its rivals overseas, but between those who have Stem training and those who do not.



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