One-Third of STEM Workers Lack a Bachelor’s (or Better)

Think you need a college degree to land a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) job? Think again. According to new data from the Pew Research Center, some 35 percent of the STEM workforce lacks a bachelor’s or higher-level degree.

Some 15 percent of STEM workers have completed an associate degree, while 14 percent have some level of college education but no bachelor’s degree. “These workers are more prevalent among health care practitioners and technicians, computer workers and engineers,” Pew explained in a research note accompanying the data.

The number of STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree almost matches the percentage of those who do (36 percent) and surpasses those with a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree (29 percent).

Salary-wise, jobs in STEM fields remain valuable, with full-time STEM workers earning an average of $54,745, versus non-STEM workers who pull down $40,505, a full 26 percent less. That salary differential remains consistent through ascending tiers of education; for example, STEM workers with a professional degree or doctorate earn an average of $120,000, versus non-STEM workers with the same education who make around $91,242.

“Among college-educated workers employed full-time year-round, the median earnings for those who have a STEM college major are $81,011, compared with $60,828 for other college majors,” Pew’s note added. “The earnings advantage for those with a college major in a STEM field extends to workers outside of STEM occupations.”

Based on Pew’s data, it seems easy to conclude that participating in a STEM field pays off, no matter what your educational attainment. Similar analyses by other organizations over the years have supported that assessment. (For instance, Carlos Rodriguez, CEO of payroll-processing giant ADP, told Fortune in June 2017 that graduates with STEM degrees could expect to pull down as much as $65,000 during their first few years in the workforce.) That being said, there are hints that not all STEM paths are created equal.

For example, in November 2017, The New York Times highlighted research by Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, who broke down Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts and concluded that 73 percent of STEM growth over the next seven years will take place in computer-related fields. To accompany the article, the Times created a visualization showing that computer science is the only STEM field where demand outpaces graduation rates.

So while science and math careers in general are good for your paycheck, it seems that computer science is even better.

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39 Responses to “One-Third of STEM Workers Lack a Bachelor’s (or Better)”

  1. Where are you getting our figures? $120K average for a professional or doctorate STEM degree? That’s not been my experience. Most PhD teach and most professor salaries hover around $100K.

    • Patrick Croft

      You are projecting the average of the population from a narrowly selected subset; completely excluding the much more common professional degree.
      Also, “most” PhD’s don’t teach even if it is the most common single line of career path. There’s about 1.5 million post secondary teaching positions and last year ~180,000 PhD’s graduated, so even if the narrowest margin of most were becoming teachers academia the average career length would need to be less than 17 years or the size of facility would need to continue to increase.
      Further a simple average is bound at 0 with no upper bound so the for outliers would tend to increase rather than decrease the average.

  2. Corey Fleigeig

    The replies above, and the article, IMO are missing an important fact. Yes, you can find a programmer w/out a degree making $100K. That’s not the issue. The issue is, how many developers w/out a degree find a well paying job *in their own hometown*, under less than optimal conditions? Not every programmer can move across the country to get a better wage. Not every programmer can find good wages in a super competitive region such as L.A. These kinds of articles are rather worthless because they cannot account for all the various conditions and factors that make up the search for a good paying position. If you compared the story of what it took to find a job for $100K to that of someone who found a job for $60K, the details can be enormously different. Its a fool’s game to apply salary wages across the board, as if the playing field is always fair.

    • Patrick Croft

      Most people who are professionals do not work in their “hometowns”. Your asking for the ideal situation. While there alot of people who choose not to move across the country for better wages, only a vanishingly small minority can’t.
      This is a data point for decision making, most valuable to people who haven’t decided on their career path. Nothing more, nothing less.

      • marshal craft

        White male here, B.S. in mathematics 5 years ago, no stem job ever. 24k a year which is highest (2 years ago 18k a year at walmart). I think people are hiring on something other than education. I feel it is predatorial behavior that is rewarded and that isn’t taught in college. I feel I was generally taught to just follow my morals (not what my morals were but to follow them). Granted I live in upstate N.Y. which is a democratic area around the capital. I feel there may be removal of high paying tech jobs due to distaste for democrats or to punish for being democrat. Any matter only jobs here typically senior software development requiring experience like 30 years experience. So way I see it is prejudice everywhere. But if I see a minority facing their own prejudice I try to do my duty to help or make a stand, but admit often I am too tired from my own struggles in past (being majority apparently). Now more lately I know it’s not admissible to have such resentment. But I can only think what is considered intelligent has changed and I am retarded. I feel this article was put here even for me to make this comment and no sympathy is had only maybe a feeling of retribution. Sorry for what ever I or someone did. I know everyday minorities and majorities are robed of freedom (real freedom like chance to follow a dream) and my dreams really have no meaning when someone is sitting behind bars or worse on extreme charges or just injustice in general. I know the words of our constitution, the declaration of independence, the bible, and words not spoken but I believe found by any person after some time spent thinking tell us how to do good. Experiencing the consequences of def ears or busy ears shouldn’t have been necessary to motivate individuals to spend time helping others even over the challenges of accomplishing our dreams. Where ever any specific person is at in their struggles, don’t give in to the urge to stop and remember there is God and God does care for you no matter who you are.

  3. A multi-degreed engineer

    This ONLY applies to white men. ONLY, I repeat ONLY. All others must have a degree and still be prepared to be the first to get let go in a down turn. Don’t fall for this.

  4. In IT as well, no degree, $100k base plus bonuses. I’d be far more amiable to finishing my degree if our academic institutions would stop being fiscally predatory and insatiably greedy. Until then, I’ll collect certifications, which is what our discipline really revolves around.

    • Zee, I think the certifications are a key miss in this article. What certifications do you think add the most value in your field? I am focusing on a CAPM right now, to make myself a more attractive candidate from a project management perspective. I work in healthcare IT.

  5. If STEM jobs are disproportionately in high cost of living areas like NYC and Bay Area, that might account for some of all of the difference. National stats are useless for that reason.

  6. What jobs do “STEM workers without degrees” have? What are their ages? How much experience? There was a time when you could start in programming with a math or business degree. Is that true now? Same question with starting in, say, the help desk/IT support and “climbing the ladder”. What regions of the country are they working?

    Lots of holes in this article.

  7. I do not have a degree and have been a computer programmer for many years making 120k+ salary. If you are wondering about how hard it is to find a job, I recently had that experience. I was laid off and stuck looking for a job. My new job pays more than the job I got laid off from. I do not work in a big city like Los Angeles but with presenting your experience properly and building a good resume makes all the difference. The color of your skin does not make a difference. I have worked with people with many colors of skin making 100k+ salaries.

  8. LaLArryrry

    Of course we can’t have ANY reasonable ADULT conversation about ANYTHING without the omnipresent RACE card being played. Let’s get real. If it were not for all those horrible “white men” this nation would be populated by millions of tee-pees or reed shacks like those countries Mr. Trump pointed out. And yes politically correct “people of color” played some role in developing this great country, but the founders of the nation who created the political, social and economic system under which you can have your $100,000.00 jobs and drive those BMW’s were a bunch of “white men” so get over it. The vast majority of the social, economic and technological advances advances in modern society for the past 150 years were made by those horrible “white men” . So get over it. Is anyone else sick and tired of being sick and tired of someone always playing the “Race, bigot, oppression, victim, Nazi, right-wing-radical, Islamaphobe, homophobe cards instead of having an intelligent adult conversation? And I don’t see millions of people clamoring to get into Uganda. There must be a reason.

  9. White guy here. I started at $19k in 1997 paying property taxes for my first “real” job, never finished college. Then learned Crystal reports while on a platform conversion project. Went to MSCE (NT 4.0) cert school. Got a job as a report writer at a mom and pop bank for $40k which was the lowest paying job in the dept. They taught me how to be a junior DBA with their SQL servers and how to document, got a job at a CRM starting $48k 2 years later, got a job in media business analyst at $62k ending at $86k a year after several promotions, left to go to another company for less money but better job at $82k, promoted to manager of DBA’s for $102k (but was worth 125k with degree)… but I am for the first time in 20 years unemployed after leaving to take care of dying parents for several months – and I can vouch that it is impossible to find work right now without a degree because it is SO competitive. I will blow through $50k in savings just to feed my family and stay alive this year and I’m in Denver the hottest city outside of CA for STEM jobs…… GET YOUR DEGREE – AT ANY COST …… OR YOU WILL PAY HARD!!!!

  10. I have worked in technology among other fields for 40 years. Attended the 2016 Gartner conference in Florida. I have made 6 figures for the last 10? years. I have an Associates in secretarial skills and a Bachelors in Ministry. Currently the head of IT for a small manufacturing company. Skills are the key to making the higher salary however you acquire them. As to race, it does matter! With 12000 people at the Gartner CIO conference there were surprisingly few Indian or African American participants. In my 40 years of doing this I have seen VERY few non white or East Asian IT workers. The advent of H1B visas and the high number of outsource service firms headquartered in India along with the movements to offshore coding and development lead me to believe I would see a large number of Indian IT practitioners at Gartner but it wasn’t that way. There may not be bias in the field but the number of minorities is surprisingly low. Not sure why but as a Black man I am usually the only one in the room when it is a technology issue, conference or meeting.

    • Very true sir. Very unfortunate. But if you are in the Oracle world especially EBS (HR, Payroll, AP, AR GL, FA etc.) you will work with 90% Indians and very little white people, and it’s wonderful. Unfortunately I believe diversity is the key to great software and because of that Oracle EBS 12 is going no where fast because they are all Indian. If they had Russians and Argentinians and Canadians and the Japanese etc their software would take over SAP which btw is a fantastically diverse company. My first DBA was black and when he left it made a huge hole in our company not only because he was brilliant but because of the culture he brought to the company. The last thing this country needs is walls, bring in the immigrants, bring in the talent, bring in cultural diversity and you will win!

    • Patrick Croft

      This is a supply side issue. There’s tons of India engineers because their entire academic curriculum (you might even say culture) is focused on producing engineers who are highly motivated to move outside of their home regions. Qualified black engineers with 5+ years of experience, on the other hand, are quite rare. There’s no major foreign producer and the U.S. training pipeline is, at best, still ramping up.

  11. I currently work as a Quality Assurance Analyst, I have an Associates of Science in Engineering Science a few IT certifications, over 12 years of experience in Construction and Industrial Robotics. I make really good money especially for a person with only an Associates degree as most of my co workers have a Bachelors degree or higher. I am currently enrolled in college part time working towards my bachelors and masters… its a dual degree program. The reason that I have decided to continue to pursue my degree is that although I usually have NO PROBLEM with getting well paying positions I realize that I am limited when it comes to climbing the ladder and a degree will definitely give me more options.

  12. First, it pains me that some white people (actually people in general) can be so willingly blind. It impedes true progress. While there is SO much inequity in the system (systemic racism), let’s view some facts. Racism, ageism, sexism does exist in America and in the IT field. Global warming, mass-murder (99% of all mass-murderers are white, 74% come from the U.S.), World Wars and global exploitation (not to mention U.S. slavery) are also things that must be claimed by the white man. While being white is not what makes an inherently bad, the steps that white people collectively have taken in recent history can; like believing that white people have made the world great. It’s not a question of “what america has done FOR people of color” but “what has america done TO people of color “. I do not subscribe to the tenets of racism, nor do I participate in it. But if we are going to point out facts, let’s do that, without all the emotion of the “poor victimized white guy” in the previous paragraph. At any rate, getting your foot in the door as a person of color is very difficult. I have a degree in C.S., and color does matter. Good white people and bad white people. America is what it is. Our system needs improvement. That’s the bottom line.

  13. BC Shelby

    …this is actually encouraging news. For years I have always believed that the value of a 4 year degree was over inflated. there used to be jobs that paid a living wage which required little to no education after high school . Today, even in the K-8 sector, schools are introducing elementary computer based studies as part of their curriculum. Back when I was growing up vocational education was stressed in the 9-12 grades. College back then was seen as the route to take if you wanted to become a teacher, professor, engineer, physician, or researcher. With maybe one year at a trade/vocational school, an apprenticeship, or 2 years at a local community college, applicants were equipped with the foundation needed to enter the employment world and earn a living wage. Not so as the case is today.

    If we returned to the idea of building that foundation for technical jobs in the 9 – 12 grades like we did for industrial and clerical jobs in the past, the need for a four year degree (and the mountain of debt it usually entails) would not be a requirement for many occupations in the tech sector. Basically what I am calling for is a sort of “reloading” of the educational system at the pre-college level to where like previously, a year or two at a much less expensive (in some cases, free) technical or community college would fill the need for producing qualified applicants.

    It is know that people tend to learn and retain complex material better at a younger age. I envy kids today who have access to computers at the primary school level. Back when I was that age, computers were seen as these big mysterious machines hidden in labs underground that mad scientists, governments, and megalomaniacs used or something that ran amok and tried to control/destroy the world. We still did all our calculations long hand, and by high school, with the ultimate symbol of “geekdom” the slide rule. Our “Google” was the card catalogue at the local library. News and information made it out only as fast as Walter Cronkite Huntley, Brinkley, could tell us or our local newspapers could put it into print in the latest edition. There was no AP/UPI newswire machine in every home.

    Also as automation begins to become a bigger part of our lives, there will be an increasing demand for people to build, service. and operate these new systems, Continuing to require a four year degree for most of these occupations will end up with more young people in serious debt, along with those displaced by the new tech, unable to afford the skill building they need to transition into a more technical related occupation.

    The bottom line is we need to “reboot” our education system at the lower grades to adapt for these changes so students are better prepared to enter the new occupations being created without having to mortgage their lives on a four year degree.

  14. It doesn’t surprise me that so many individuals don’t have a college degree and are working in the STEM field. Many colleges don’t focus on teaching stuff that you can use in the real world and for that, you have get into a job that will teach you stuff you will apply. Also some schools have programs that are so watered down, that it’s a waste of time and most important, a waste of money, to even go there and companies know this, so they hire people to train. In my field we have hired people with Liberal Arts degrees and some with no degrees, but they know frameworks, multiple programing languages, cloud computing, and other related stuff, better than grads with computer science degrees in the majority of cases. Certs get you off to a better start than some college degree from some paper mill school.

  15. Eric in Sacramento

    Nearly 20 years experience, no degree, and over $120 per year for the last 4-5 years. I expect 2018 will be even better. I’m a contractor, I change jobs constantly, got my LLC last year, and am currently earning $115 per hour on C2C. If I can get a $135K salary, I’ll take a regular job.

    No, I’m not white. If race is your excuse, it’s just that: an excuse. Most of the people I work with are racial “minorities,” and nearly half weren’t even born in the U.S. Communication is often a problem, but it still beats working with with excuse-searching, constantly-offended natural born citizens. I’m nearly 50 and study harder than any college student.

  16. After reading the articles and comments I’d have to comment. I’m a software engineer of 10 years. IT in general hires heavily based on skills. I’ve interviewed and leaned heavily on people with the skills. If you’re going for an entry-level job a degree, past projects, etc may help you but with the amount of work out there that needs to be done often times companies want someone that can hit the ground running.

    Also as far as salary is concerned, not all STEM skills are valued the same. In software development you should Google salary broken down by language. Don’t expect network engineers to be paid the same as a software developer or a software developer vs a database administrator (I’ve heard of some crazy salaries for DBA’s).

    I’ve only been doing my work for 10 or so years. Aging in my field is also a concern for me because I know that at the pace things are changing in the industry I’m afraid that if there are gaps in my experience it could make it harder to find a job. If for example I missed the major migrations companies have made to certain tools, when I got back I would have to play catch up, AND convince prospective employers that I was ready to hit the ground running.

    Then there is the race issue. As an African American my code literally has no color. It’s either easy to read or it isn’t. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s either easy to maintain or it isn’t. For this reason I feel confident I can market my skills when I do look for a job.

    One more side note on communication (very important). I’ve met native English speakers that are worse in this area than those that are foreign born. #SMH