(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON Aug 20 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
In high school and university classrooms across the United
States, a quiet revolution is underway 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor 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 percent) between
2003 and 2011, the latest year for which figures are available,
according to the U.S. Department of Education.
More than 3.7 million students enrolled in undergraduate
courses that can be loosely classed as STEM programmes in 2011,
up from 3 million in 2003, according to the 2013 edition of the
Department's "Digest of Educational Statistics".
Enrolments in STEM disciplines have been growing much faster
than for undergraduate programmes as a whole, which rose by just
5 percent over the same period.
In fact, increased enrolments in STEM accounted for more
than more than half of the total increase in university
enrolments over the eight years between 2003 and 2011.
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
MATHS IS THE KEY
North America's oil and gas boom is just one example of how
financial incentives are shaping the educational choices of a
Average earnings for qualified petroleum engineers shot up
from $87,000 in 2003 to $149,000 in 2011, a 70 percent 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.
Earnings have escalated across a wide range of STEM-related
occupations in the last decade.
Average pay for mathematicians rose 34 percent between 2003
and 2013. Pay for operations research analysts was up 32
percent. Statisticians saw their average earnings rise 34
percent. There were also better-than-average increases for
materials engineers (39 percent), aerospace engineers (39
percent) and naval architects (31 percent).
By contrast, average earnings for all occupations rose just
25 percent. To keep pace with inflation, workers needed to earn
about 27 percent more in 2013 than in 2003. So on average pay
fell in real terms. Any occupation that achieved average pay
rises of less than 27 percent actually saw its real earning
Lawyers, a literate discipline, experienced a
smaller-than-average and below-inflation increase in average
earnings of 22 percent, while economists, another high status
but more quantitative discipline, saw their average earnings
increase just over 30 percent.
The broad category of "arts, design, entertainment, sports,
and media" occupations, which includes journalists, received an
average raise of about 26 percent. But reporters did worse than
average, with pay rising just 21 percent, behind inflation,
while public relations specialists did better on 31 percent.
For years, U.S. politicians and educators have worried about
the declining competitiveness of the U.S. 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 across the developing world (before that the same concerns
were expressed about Japan in the 1970s and 1980s).
In 2007, the prestigious National Research Council, an
umbrella group for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences,
National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine,
published an alarming report entitled "Rising above the
gathering storm: energizing and employing America for a brighter
"(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," it warned.
"We are worried about the future prosperity of the United
States," the report observed pessimistically. "Although many
people assume the United States will always be a world leader in
science and technology that may not continue to be the case
inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world."
Among its recommendations, the council wanted more
high-school maths and science teachers, an "enlarged pipeline of
students" ready to study STEM subjects at college, and an
"increase (in) the number and proportion of U.S. citizens who
earn bachelor's degrees in the physical sciences, the life
sciences, engineering and mathematics."
The National Research Council wanted 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
Over the next ten years, the relatively high pay and status
afforded to scientists, engineers and mathematicians will
continue to attract students towards studying these subjects and
strengthen the "knowledge base" politicians, educators and
commentators worry about so much.
The strengthening pipeline of STEM students is good news for
the oil and gas industry, as well as other businesses that need
to recruit large number of graduates with quantitative skills.
But the outlook for students with non-STEM degrees is much less
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.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)