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Engineering Jobs—Part of Louisville's 'STEM' Focus—Lead the Way In National Job Earnings Study

A worker's lifetime earning potential doubles with a bachelor's degree over a high school diploma or a GED, according to a study released recently by the Hamilton Project and the Brookings Institution.

But another factor plays into earning potential—the field the worker enters. The top earning fields are all related to science, technology, engineering and math. They're collectively called STEM fields and have been a recent focus among Louisville education advocates.

Fields with a “quantitative component tend to pay more,” said Melissa Kearney, the director of The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

“I think we can expect that is going to be increasingly so."

The study looked at 80 college majors and how much their related fields can yield a worker in a lifetime.

Here is a chart  from the study of all majors analyzed, including associate degrees and high school diplomas.  (Note: The figures represent median lifetime earnings in millions of dollars.)

Louisville workers in STEM-related fields—both those that have at least a bachelor’s and those with an associate degree—earn, on average, about $20,000 a year more than workers in non-STEM related fields, according to a 2013 reportby the Greater Louisville Project.

Unemployment rates for workers in STEM related jobs (4.9 percent) are also lower than those in non-STEM jobs (8.6), as well.

But are today's students interested in majoring in a STEM related field?  That’s a question that may be answered by looking at the results of a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation of more than 1 million students who took the ACT from 2010 to 2012.

The survey found that nearly 90 percent of students are not interested in a STEM major or occupation.

In Louisville, data shows something different.

During the same time the National Science Foundation survey was being conducted, STEM-related degrees accounted for nearly 40 percent of all postsecondary degrees awarded in Louisville.  That is the fifth-highest percentage among 16 peer cities, according to the Greater Louisville Project report.

Louisville also ranks fourth among 16 peer cities in the number of women employed in STEM-related fields, with 37 percent of Louisville women working in STEM fields, according to data provided by the Greater Louisville Project.

Kearney said students shouldn’t pursue a career or a major based solely on job security or financial incentive.

“Students need to look at this in light of their own interests and skills,” she said.

In Kentucky, students seem to be doing just that, forgoing the high-paying careers for those they have a passion for.

For instance, the most popular major among Kentucky college students is elementary education, based on a recent report by Business Insider that aggregated data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.

Student’s pursuing elementary education can expect their salary to peak 33 years into their career at about $43,000.  Compare that to chemical engineering, which looks to peak at $115,000 after just 27 years, according to The Hamilton Project report.    

“Not all college degrees yield large earnings gained,” Kearney said.  “That’s just a point of information people should have when making this really large investment decision.”

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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