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July 12, 2013
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Computer Occupations Anchor Regional STEM Workforce

The recently released quarterly edition of the Illinois Innovation Index delves into metropolitan Chicago's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce, examining employment and postings, degree attainment, and attraction and retention. The earlier Policy Update in this two-part series described mixed results in the supply and demand of skilled STEM workers in metropolitan Chicago. This second post focuses on the region's concentration in one STEM field -- computer technology -- as an opportunity to foster growth across various segments of the region's economy moving forward.

Specialization in Computer Occupations
With over 115,000 jobs in metropolitan Chicago, computer-related occupations are by far the region's largest STEM field at three times the size of the next biggest such occupation (engineers). Not only do computer occupations account for the most absolute jobs, the field is the only STEM area where metropolitan Chicago is more specialized compared to the national average.

Data from the Illinois Innovation Index help contextualize the past, present, and future of the region's important concentration of skilled computer technology workers. The April edition reported that computer occupations were the only regional STEM field in addition to social science to add jobs in the past ten years, while the May update found that many more new graduates have been successful in securing computer science employment in Illinois relative to the national rate.

By analyzing recent on-line job postings, the Index also shows strong current demand for computer occupations: In 2012, six of the top 20 regional occupations by average monthly on-line postings came from computer science. While on-line postings only offer a partial snapshot of the larger economy, this finding further showcases the importance of computer technology to the regional economy. Not surprising given these trends, the Index predicts that the majority of future STEM growth in the state will be for computer technicians, programmers, and scientists.

Computer Occupations Bolster Numerous Regional Industries
Positions within computer science -- such as software and Web developers or computer network and system administrators -- support economic activity across virtually every sector of the region's economy. A key addition of the recent Index is to build upon this link by showcasing the rising role of computer occupations in regional manufacturing and health care industries. A recent CMAP drill-down report demonstrated how manufacturers continue to adopt computer technology into the manufacturing process, such as computer numerical control (CNC) machines to automate production or advanced computational systems for product development. The following chart shows that this has led to substantial employment growth of computer-related information technology (IT) occupations in the region's advanced manufacturing industries.

The Index's exploration of private hospital employment shows a similar expanded role for computer occupations, this time in the health care sector. Between 2002-12, computer occupations in regional private hospitals grew by 33 percent, greatly outpacing the three percent overall growth of that industry. As the Index points out, the increased transition to electronic health records will likely augment the role of computer systems and thus an adequately trained workforce in hospitals and other medical facilities.

Conclusion
While metropolitan Chicago has struggled to maintain STEM employment in fields such as engineering or the life sciences, multiple data sources analyzed in the Illinois Innovation Index all point to a strong regional concentration in computer occupations. This concentration complements the broad nature of the regional economy as these positions have applications across virtually every sector. The importance of our region's skilled computer workforce will likely increase as technology continues to remake existing industries and create new ones. Thus, the region stands to gain if it can successfully translate its current specialization into new capabilities and new positions underpinning growth in key regional sectors, such as manufacturing or health care.


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