06/12/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

The Sub-Bachelor's STEM Economy

To make it in this economy, you have to have skills that customers or employers value.

The need for skilled workers is at the heart of debates about immigration policy, innovation, education, and opportunity. It raises questions about how to better prepare students, spark entrepreneurship, and spur innovation as part of the broader quest to revamp our stagnant economy and bring more Americans into the middle class.

But these questions can't be answered without a proper definition of our skilled workforce, and we don't have that. It is well established that knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects leads to high-paying careers, but we have the misconception that all STEM workers are advanced degree holders.

As my new report shows, half of America's highly-skilled technical workers do not possess a doctorate or even a bachelor's degree. Instead their knowledge is acquired through a combination of on-the-job-training, experience, and relatively short periods of post-secondary education. These are unheralded STEM jobs, in the background of every city and town, far removed the public accolades, or support, reserved for scientists and tech workers.

As of 2011, one out of every 10 U.S. jobs are sub-bachelor's STEM jobs. With an average salary of $53,000, they provide decent-paying career paths at a time when less than one-third of young adults are finishing expensive four-year degrees. Examples of these occupations include industrial machinery mechanics, registered nurses, auto-mechanics, carpenters, supervisors of production workers, electricians, machinists, pipefitters, welders, machine programmers, chemical technicians, and sheet metal workers.

None of these jobs are considered part of the "science and engineering" workforce under current definitions, including the most influential one from the National Science Foundation.
Though they get little credit, sub-bachelor's degree STEM workers contribute to economic growth in a variety of ways, by providing advice to inventors, producing energy, administering treatments, inspecting infrastructure, reducing product defects, and making processes more efficient.

Moreover, sub-bachelor's STEM jobs are available in most metropolitan areas but often take longer to fill than even non-STEM professional jobs. In the average large metro area, 12 percent of all job vacancies advertised on-line were for sub-bachelor's level STEM jobs in 2011, and in metro areas like Milwaukee, Dallas, Chattanooga and Birmingham over 15 percent fell into this category.

Also in 2011, STEM workers without a bachelor's degree had an unemployment rate 2.2 percentage points below non-STEM workers without a bachelor's degree and earned wages 64 percent higher.

Nevertheless, these jobs get little political support. Most federal government spending on STEM education goes to universities for bachelor's degree or higher education. NSF-funded programs have been very successful in boosting STEM retention and attainment at the bachelor's or higher level, but just a small slice of these programs go to community colleges. The other federal sources for sub-bachelor's STEM training go through the Department of Labor in programs funded by fees on H-1B visa fees, which could be increased by new legislation being debated now, or stimulus dollars, which will expire.

More broadly, research universities get 4.6 times more dollars per student from the federal government than community colleges. State and local governments also slight their public community colleges relative to their research universities, even though students from the latter are less likely to work in the region.

Culturally, too, the sub-bachelor's level STEM jobs are afforded little respect. Professional STEM workers receive presidential medals and Nobel prizes. The closest thing for sub-bachelor's level STEM workers might be the Craft Professional of the Year award, given out by the Associated Builders and Contractors. This year's winner, an electrician named Michael Arledge, received a pickup truck, but neither national press nor a Wikipedia entry.

It's time to give these occupations the esteem they deserve. While spending years at a university is still the surest route to earning a middle class salary, it is not the only means of acquiring valuable knowledge. The many working in skilled occupations with an associate's degree or training certification are among the most scientifically and technically sophisticated workers in our economy. Public policies should acknowledge the legitimacy and vitality of this career path.