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STEM
California’s outlook for STEM career opportunities has long been optimistic, but demand may vary. File photo
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Should North County students pursue STEM? Yes. Maybe.

REGION — Will studying STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — set young adults up for good jobs in San Diego County?

Having perused various data, our short answer is that studying STEM won’t hurt. In particular, a solid foundation in coding and computer skills is broadly applicable, even in non-technical jobs.

Our longer answer is that STEM demand may vary considerably, depending on sub-discipline, where you’re willing to live, and whether you’re willing and able to pursue advanced degrees. Parents and students should do their research and manage plans and expectations accordingly.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015 published an article entitled, “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes.” Comparing the STEM job market to the fluid taxicab (haha) market, the authors write: “Just as there are separate lines for taxicabs that accept credit cards versus ones that do not, there are distinct lines for each type of STEM occupation.

“The demand for workers with doctorates in mechanical engineering is different from the demand for those with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and the supply of workers with doctorates in the biomedical sciences is different from the supply of those with doctorates in physics. There are also spatial differences.

“A queue of waiting taxis may be a common sight at an airport, but outside a hotel, it may be more common to see a queue of waiting passengers. Analogously, the demand for petroleum engineers in Texas is different from the demand for petroleum engineers in Massachusetts.”

Similarly, compiling various federal data, The New York Times in 2017 published a chart entitled, “So Many Degrees, So Little Demand,” comparing nationwide post-secondary degrees against job demand in five STEM fields.

Graduates with majors in life sciences (excluding health care), engineering, physical sciences and mathematical sciences far outnumbered job openings. Only in the field of computer science did degrees and job openings roughly balance.

STEM jobs
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines STEM as comprising 100 occupations in computers, math, engineering, life and physical sciences, architecture, and related sales and teaching fields. Graphic by Dan Brendel

That said, California’s outlook for STEM career opportunities has long been optimistic. The state government in 2015 forecasted that, by 2022, California would boast the largest share of nationwide STEM jobs — two-thirds higher than second-place Texas, more than double third-place New York.

Erik Bruvold of the San Diego North Economic Development Council, a membership organization, expresses similar optimism for North County specifically. He says “tons” of local companies can’t find enough workers with adequate technical backgrounds, pointing to four STEM sub-disciplines as exhibiting the most local growth potential.

First, anything related to software and coding. College students need not pursue a computer science degree specifically, but they should consider leaning toward computer sub-disciplines in whatever field they choose. For example, electrical engineers might focus on firmware or computer-aided design rather than hardware, he said.

Moreover, coding skills translate across industry sectors (Your correspondent, for instance, frequently uses coding, geographic information systems and basic data science knowledge for journalism). Translatability could prove valuable in a labor market Bruvold describes as requiring workers to “adapt and learn and pivot.”

Of STEM fields in San Diego County, software development and market research analysis offer the most job openings and fastest growth, according to the California Employment Development Department’s 2016-2026 employment projections.

Second, Bruvold noted sub-disciplines relating to biotechnology and biomedical devices. Local companies in this sector added more than 6,000 jobs — a growth rate over 40% — over 9 years, according to a 2018 report from Bruvold’s organization and BW Research Partnership, a Carlsbad-based firm.

Third, specialties related to unmanned vehicles, especially the aerial sort. Companies like General Atomics and Northrop Grumman have added thousands of jobs over the last decade, demanding skills in aviation technology, materials sciences and software, Bruvold said.

Finally, advanced manufacturing. Automated processes — like those used by San Marcos’ Hunter Industries, which makes irrigation equipment, and Carlsbad’s Nordson Electronics Solutions, which makes industrial fluid dispensing devices — require technical aptitudes.

More advanced or management-level jobs in STEM industries would draw from a national or even global talent pool. But Bruvold thinks companies prefer local applicants for entry-level positions, as it costs a lot to fly in non-local interviewees and relocate households.

Nevertheless, parents and students might bear in mind that most jobs aren’t STEM jobs, even in the STEM-richest regions, including San Diego County (see chart). And not every STEM field that’s growing relative to some timeframe is adding tons of jobs in an absolute sense.

In San Diego County, roughly as many or more bachelor’s degree jobs are open for teachers, general and operational managers, and registered nurses as for software developers, according to the state’s 2016-2026 employment projections.

The county’s fastest-growing fields include operations research and information security analysis, but they’ll add only a few hundred jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average STEM proportion of regional labor markets, including 530 metropolitan areas nationwide, at about 5%. In San Diego County, the share is about 10%.

Some areas boast higher proportions, but often they’re relatively small regions with a niche draw: for instance, 28% in Lexington Park, Maryland, adjacent to a naval test pilot school and test range; or 17% in Huntsville, Alabama, home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

To further research specific STEM fields, readers might start by checking out the Employment Development Department’s online “occupational guides” tool. This tool enables users to explore occupational fields by county, pay, job openings, growth rate and personal interests.

For students enrolled in public schools, consider reaching out to your school district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) department.