The country's knowledge economy is beginning to get drowned out.
Just 4.9 percent of all American jobs were in science or engineering fields in 2010, according to new Census data reported in The Wall Street Journal, down from 5.3 percent in 2000. That's the first time that number has declined in a national census since 1950.
The WSJ notes that the actual number of people in science or engineering jobs has risen since 2000. But as a percentage of the workforce, those jobs are trending down after rising for half a century.
In the middle years of the twentieth century, competition with the Russians, best symbolized by the fear surrounding the USSR's launch of the Sputnik satellite, bolstered interest in racing to the moon and improving domestic scientific education. That enthusiasm has shown signs of waning, however, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.
The Census figures appear to reflect two of the other biggest shifts in the American labor force in recent years. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing -- lost to overseas competition and advances in technology -- and taking their base of engineering positions with them. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy sustained massive job losses between 2000 and 2010, and many of the jobs that have since come back are low-paid service positions. In the last two years, the food services industry alone has added 487,000 jobs.
Having a strong science and tech workforce is generally seen as key to sustaining national momentum and economic growth. A study last year found that across different regions of the U.S., higher levels of technical training tended to be associated with strong economic growth.
The fall-off in science and tech jobs may also be related to the rising cost of higher education. Middle-class incomes, by and large, haven't been keeping up with the swelling price of tuition in the past decade.
In any case, there seem to be plenty of workers eager to enter these fields. A recent poll of college graduates in their twenties and thirties found the country's top three most desirable employers to be Google, Apple and Facebook, with Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, NASA and Yahoo all ranking within the top 20. Still, 60 percent of Americans ages 16 to 25 said that there was some obstacle preventing them from pursuing further schooling or work in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, according to a recent survey.