To illustrate the complexity of the problem of relating graduation trends to occupational trends, Burrelli used NSF data to make a rough comparison of the population of aerospace engineering and space science2 degree holders with the number of degree holders actually working in those fields in 2003. In that year there were approximately 350,000 degree holders in aerospace engineering and space science. However, a significant majority of those degree holders, 270,000 or 77 percent, were not employed as aerospace engineers or space scientists. Similarly, the data indicated that of the 200,000 workers employed as aerospace engineers or space scientists, about 120,000 did not hold degrees in those fields. Consequently, only about 80,000 workers, corresponding to 23 percent of the degree holders and 40 percent of the aerospace engineering and space science workforce, were actually working in the field of their degree. However, many may be working in related fields, such as management. The committee notes that this situation illustrates the difficulty of identifying and filling workforce categories. It also illustrates the point that people with strong technical backgrounds can quite readily acquire the specialized knowledge to go into different (but related) fields. Consequently, recruitment need not be too tightly targeted to the momentarily required specializations.
Burrelli also mentioned three likely influences on future natural science and engineering enrollment and graduation trends. First, the college-age population in the United States is expected to begin to decline after 2015. Second, the number of foreign students in the United States as temporary residents has been declining since September 2001, although the number of permanent residents still has been growing. Third, enrollments tend to be very sensitive to employment opportunities, with first-time enrollments in a field declining in response to rising unemployment in the field, but with graduate student enrollments tending to rise when the employment picture softens.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) periodically makes projections of the U.S. labor market, including the future size, industrial composition, and occupational distribution of the labor force. The projection process involves six steps, which address the following:
Size and composition of the labor force (starting with Census Bureau data and considering participation rates based on recent trends),
Growth of the aggregate economy (derived from multivariable macroeconomic models),
Allocation of gross domestic product by consuming sector and product,
Industry output and employment, and
At the committee’s February 22, 2006, meeting Nicholas Terrell from BLS discussed recent graduation and employment trends in selected areas of engineering and physical science, and he summarized the most recent BLS projections, which were released in 2004 for the period 2004 to 2014. Terrell noted that the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in aerospace engineering and in physics and astronomy has been increasing since 2000, while the number of Ph.D. degrees granted over the same period has stayed relatively flat. BLS projects an 8 percent growth in total employment between 2004 and 2014 for aerospace engineers and 7 percent growth for astronomers and physicists, compared to a projected 21 percent increase for the total of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupations. (See Table 3.1.)