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Spring 2007 Vol. 51, Number 1

High-tech jobs for a high-tech economy

by Nicholas Terrell


 


Faster aircraft, bolder video games, better medicines—technology moves forward every day. And tech-savvy workers make those advances happen. Without the work of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians, and other skilled workers, most new products and discoveries would never be developed.

The need for technical work continues to grow. Technical occupations are often defined as those related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Workers in STEM occupations use science and math to solve problems. Educational requirements for STEM occupations range from a high school diploma and on-the-job training to a Ph.D. But all require the ability to think logically.

There are several ways to identify and count STEM occupations. Some researchers, for example, count social scientists and science managers; others include any
occupation that uses science and technology. Adopting a more focused definition, this article describes the occupations that most clearly concentrate on STEM.

On the pages that follow, you’ll find information about STEM occupations, earnings, educational requirements, and job prospects. There are also suggestions on how to prepare for a STEM career and where to find more information.

STEM jobs

There are many kinds of work within STEM’s divisions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Science

When you think of science workers, you might picture a chemist in a white lab coat running experiments—and you’d be right. But science goes beyond the laboratory. Scientists are also involved in teamwork, communication, and data analysis. And although many scientists spend time in laboratories, they work in offices, too. Some work outdoors, as when wildlife biologists observe animals in their habitats or geoscientists measure movements in the Earth’s crust.

Scientists design experiments to find out how things work. They conduct or oversee those experiments, analyze the results, and explain what the results mean. They use scientific methods to learn about the world. In 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 13 percent of STEM jobs as defined here were in natural science occupations. (See chart 1.)

Natural science occupations fall into three broad groups: life scientists, physical scientists, and natural science technicians.

Life scientists. Life scientists study living systems, from organisms to ecosystems. Agricultural and food scientists, for example, study the production and distribution of food. They work to increase food quantity, quality, and safety.

Biological scientists study animals, plants, and bacteria. They also analyze metabolic processes and other life elements.

Conservation scientists and foresters manage natural resources to maximize their long-term economic, recreational, and conservation value; for example, they might decide when and how to plant trees or chop them down. And medical scientists look for both causes of and treatments for human diseases.

Physical scientists. Physical scientists study the parts of nature that are not alive. They might ponder the motion of distant suns or the bonds between nuclear particles. Atmospheric scientists, for example, monitor weather conditions to understand trends and to forecast atmospheric changes.

Chemists and materials scientists conduct research to create new chemicals and other materials for use in many products.

Environmental scientists and hydrologists investigate environmental hazards and pollutants and the circulation of underground and surface waters. Geoscientists study the composition and structure of the earth, often in search of available supplies of natural resources.

Physicists and astronomers explore the fundamental laws governing matter and energy in the universe, mathematically modeling the forces of nature.

Natural science technicians. These technicians assist scientists in conducting experiments and analyzing the results. They might prepare experimental apparatus, collect samples or readings, and summarize the results.

Biological technicians generally work as laboratory assistants engaged in biological and medical research. Chemical technicians in research and development also work as laboratory assistants, and those involved in manufacturing typically monitor industrial processes.

Technology

This category could include any occupation that requires technical skill, but it usually refers to information technology or computer-related occupations. Workers in these occupations use logic, mathematics, and computer science to make computers function.

Some technology workers create new software, design computer systems, and develop databases. Others focus on helping people use computers and on keeping computers running well.

Designing and developing. Many computer workers find ways to make computers more useful. Computer software engineers, for example, create new computer programs or systems. They develop an overall plan for how the program works. They design algorithms that tell the computer how to complete tasks. And they figure out how to make software work faster.

Computer programmers often help software engineers implement their plans. They write code to tell the computer to do specific tasks.

Computer systems analysts help organizations to use computers effectively. They choose computer hardware and software that meet an organization’s needs and oversee its computer-related policies and plans.

Computer research scientists study advanced computer technology. Database analysts design methods of organizing and storing data for quick retrieval.

Helping users. Other information technology workers focus on helping people with computer problems and on keeping computers running smoothly. These workers, called computer support specialists or systems administrators, provide administrative and technical assistance to computer users.

 

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007