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6 Things You Didn't Know About STEM Jobs and Students

Jada A. Graves

There are still an overwhelming number of occupations that require specialized skills and talent, but not enough qualified professionals who are applying for or filling those positions. There is still a movement to entice female students, minority students--heck, all students--to pursue an education followed by an occupation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

But interest in these fields is increasing, according to a new national report released by STEMconnector, a STEM information database, and My College Options, a college-planning website that uses questionnaires to collect data on students' interests and career aspirations. The report--Where are the STEM Students? What are Their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs?--pegs the STEM interests of one million high school students in the United States and documents how their interest correlates with the STEM workforce to come in five years.

The national report finds that interest in STEM studies and careers has swelled more than 20 percent from the interest expressed by the graduating class of 2004. In 2012 there were more than 7.4 million workers in the fields of science and technology, and by 2018 there could be more than 8.6 million STEM workers, not counting self-employed people.

[Read: 4 Tips for Overcoming the Skills Gap.]

Here are some other interesting facts to know about the state of STEM:

1. Interest might be higher than it has been, but it's still lower for upperclassmen than those in lower grades. The desire to study or pursue STEM majors or careers appears to droop the closer students get to graduating. According to the report, 27.9 percent of students from the class of 2016 are interested in STEM. About 25.2 percent of this year's class has an interest in those subjects, and in 2012, 24.8 percent of graduating seniors were intrigued by STEM major areas and/or careers.

"The problem for educators is learning to engage students," says Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector. "By the time students have reached high school, we lose half of them [in regards to STEM interest], and we lose 80 percent as they move up the high school system. We have a challenge of keeping students excited about these types of careers and nurturing these types of talents."

2. Mechanical engineering is the most popular major/career choice for STEM-interested students. The most sought-after STEM work and major isn't in aerospace, electrical, or civil engineering, but in mechanical engineering. A little more than 20 percent of STEM students have an affinity for designing, developing, building, and testing various tools and devices. The report states: "Engineering and Technology interest are on the rise, while interest in Science and Mathematics has decreased over the past few years."

[Read: 19 Hot Jobs That Pay $80K or More.]

3. Among minorities, American Indians have a significant interest in STEM subjects and careers. My College Options and STEMconnector find that American Indians are more interested in STEM studies than any other ethnic group, excluding Asians. Nearly 33 percent of Asians students are inclined to pursue a STEM education or career, whereas 29.6 percent of American Indian students are interested in doing so. The study also notes that interest in STEM has been rising among American Indian, Hispanic, and white students since 2011.

However, American Indians comprise a smaller pocket of STEM students overall: A little more than half of all STEM students nationally are white, 14.5 percent are Hispanic, 12.2 percent are black, 12 percent are multiracial, 6 percent are Asian, and 2.4 percent describe their ethnicity as "other." All of these groups are ahead of American Indians, which make up only 2.2 percent of all STEM students nationally.

4. Female STEM students gravitate to science. The My College Options and STEMconnector report reads: "Arguably the most concerning trend with students interested in STEM is the increasing gender-gap." Female students express an interest in these fields at 14.5 percent, compared to the 39.6 percent of males. What's promising, however, is that girls exhibit considerable interest in science subjects. Biology, the second-most popular STEM subject to study and pursue, attracts 24.7 percent of all STEM-studying girls, compared to only 6.3 percent of male students. Basic science, marine biology, and mathematics/statistics also pique the interest of females more so than they do for males.

5. In five years, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois will provide the most STEM jobs. California and New York are front-running states for finding employment in numerous lines of work, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects these states are also leading the pack to offer STEM jobs by 2018. Out of more than 8.6 million expected jobs in those industries, more than 1.6 million will crop up in either California or the Empire State.

Rounding out the top five are states that might surprise you: Texas, boasting nearly 758,000 jobs; Florida, with 411,000 jobs; and Virginia, which could have 404,000 openings by 2018. "The states with the most entrepreneurs are where the jobs are expected to be," Fraser says. "If you look at California, New York, and Texas, those are the states where entrepreneurs are starting businesses, and offering a number of new jobs."

6. Not every STEM job requires a four-year degree. It's a myth that the best STEM jobs are exclusively available to those accumulating Ivy League debt. There are plenty of occupations available to students who choose a two-year vocational program instead of a four-year public or private college, and the study conducted by My College Options and STEMconnector finds interest in STEM work is highest among those at a two-year vocational or technical school. Similarly, some of the best-paying and fastest-growing occupations are STEM-related, but not pure math gigs, engineering jobs, or overly scientific fields.

"One real interesting finding is that when we often look at STEM occupations, we think of astronomers, physicists, and engineers," says Robert S. Boege, executive director of ASTRA, the science and technology research organization that partnered with STEMconnector to conduct and compile some of the research for the report. "But the more than 8 million more [projected STEM] jobs includes ones like accountants, people who do financial modeling, investing, those who use statistics, etc. In other words, STEM-related jobs."

The BLS and the report find that STEM-related jobs with inflated employment growth do include occupations with lengthy training. But occupations that make the cut--such as auto mechanics, construction managers, and aerospace mechanics--often require only two years of post-secondary education.

[See: The 100 Best Jobs of 2013.]

The My College Options and STEMconnector national report also provides statistics on the type of courses taken, preferable college size, and the extracurricular activities of STEM students. It's the hope of both Boege and Fraser that students, parents, educators, and policy makers use this study's findings to attract new students, retain current ones, and to help them make wise decisions when picking a specific career and education path. It's also a resource that can be used to track how student interest in various parts of the country matches up to job opportunity.

Visit stemconnector.org for comprehensive details on the full report.

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