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Pathways into STEM Employment

In a new white paper "Pathways into STEM Jobs," my colleagues Nikhil Gahlawat, Silvia Lara, Rosie Hood, Paul Ko, and I explore the various routes individuals take to secure STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs in the United States, shedding light on the diverse educational backgrounds of workers in these critical fields. Contrary to common belief, having a STEM degree is not always a prerequisite for entering the STEM workforce. Our study reveals that nearly 3 in 10 individuals currently working in STEM roles do not possess a STEM-related degree. This challenges the traditional notion that a specialized degree is the only gateway to a career in STEM. However, the pathways differ in important ways, including in representation in STEM work, applications to STEM jobs, likelihood of working in jobs with a high usage of STEM skills, and persistence in STEM positions after entry. We also find high school graduates occupy an interesting intermediate position, typically having higher STEM representation, applications, skills, and persistence than non-STEM college graduates, but far lower than STEM college graduates.  

STEM degrees lead to higher representation in STEM work

More than half of STEM degree holders at each education level have gained experience in at least one STEM job, with rates increasing alongside higher levels of education. Conversely, approximately 10-15% of non-STEM degree holders have ventured into STEM employment. Notably, high school graduates exhibit an interesting pattern, occupying a middle ground—above non-STEM degree holders but below their counterparts with STEM degrees. This positioning may, in part, arise from the absence of a distinct high school STEM degree, which can separate individuals into STEM-inclined and non-STEM-inclined categories.

Interest in STEM

In 2022, 57.2% of high school graduates exploring job opportunities on LinkedIn engaged with at least one STEM position—an increase from 2020 when it stood at 48.5%. All education groups saw similar increases, although again, the highest levels were for STEM graduates. For example, for the 2022 cohort of master’s STEM degree graduates, 92.7% viewed or applied for at least one STEM job. Furthermore, over 20% of high school graduates actively applied for STEM positions, surpassing all other non-STEM graduate groups (though still trailing behind STEM graduates of any education level, who saw an application rate of around 60%). We also found that demonstrating interest through applications substantially boosts the likelihood of entering the STEM workforce earlier. 

STEM skills matter

When equipped with STEM skills, non-STEM graduates become two to three times more likely to secure their first STEM job each month compared to their counterparts without such skills. Additionally, we find that the first STEM job for non-STEM graduates has a lower fraction of top skills which are STEM compared to the first job for STEM graduates. Non-STEM graduates who eventually move into STEM also do so from non-STEM jobs which use a smaller fraction of STEM jobs than STEM graduates. Facilitating avenues for motivated non-STEM degree holders to access STEM employment not only diversifies the STEM workforce but also strengthens pathways into this dynamic field. 

Differences in which STEM jobs start STEM careers

There are diverse pathways into STEM by education level. High school and associate degree graduates are more likely than STEM degree holders to enter STEM work through technician, technical support, and pharmacy roles. In contrast, STEM bachelor's and master's degree graduates are more likely to have engineering roles as their first STEM job. These differences in first STEM jobs across education groups is also reflected in the earlier-discussed result of non-STEM graduates’ first STEM job having a smaller share of top skills that are STEM than STEM graduates. 


Despite lingering disparities in STEM job representation for workers with lower educational attainment, there is cause for optimism. Over time, most metrics have shown improvement. One striking example is the increased probability of finding STEM employment within two years of graduation. In 2013, the likelihood for high school graduates stood at 4.2%. By 2021, this figure increased to 11.3%, marking an impressive 2.7-fold increase. STEM skills are critical to retaining pathways into STEM for workers without STEM degrees.  

To build on these positive trends, policymakers and industry leaders should consider strengthening pathways for non-STEM graduates, promoting and increasing access to STEM training and skills, leveraging skills-first approaches to recruitment in appropriate occupations, and fostering retention and career progression.