Metropolitan Chicago's tradition of a skilled and educated workforce has helped establish the region as a global economic center. One of the most important factors influencing the sustained vitality of the region's economy, as noted in GO TO 2040, continues to be the region's quality workforce. The plan recommends improved education and workforce development systems to foster the high-quality labor force needed for a 21st Century economy. Underpinning the changing workforce needs of this new global economy has been an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations. These STEM fields often serve as a proxy for the types of in-demand skills fueling innovation and growth in advanced global economies.

The Hidden STEM Economy, a report released by the Brookings Institution in June 2013, confirms the importance of a STEM labor force for metropolitan regions. In an analysis of the 100 largest U.S. urban areas, the study finds that regions with higher STEM knowledge concentrations have more robust economies. For example, as the graphic below shows, metropolitan areas with a greater knowledge concentration in STEM fields have lower unemployment, higher median household incomes, more patents per capita, and a higher rate of exports (a measure of international competitiveness). Due in part to the strength of their STEM workforce, these regions have also been affected less by the recession, as shown by their employment growth rate since 2008. In other words, the study associates a greater proportion of a region's labor force employed in STEM fields with improved economic performance. Yet, while other studies have also made a similar link between STEM and economic competiveness in the global economy, the Brookings report adds new insights by expanding the view of what STEM employment actually looks like in regional economies.

Metro areas with higher STEM knowledge have stronger economies

Source: Taken from the Brookings Institution's "The Hidden STEM Economy" infographics, 2013. Based on Brookings analysis of data from the Department of Labor's O*NET program, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and the Strumsky Patents Database.

A Broader View of the STEM Workforce
According to the recent Brookings report, past studies of STEM focused almost exclusively on white-collar advanced science and technology positions such as biophysicists, material engineers, or others requiring specialized university training. While these highly skilled positions certainly represent a key component of the innovation economy, they comprise only one slice of the overall STEM field. Most notably, the report shows that STEM continues to permeate not only advanced professional settings, but also "blue-collar" fields such as manufacturing; as a result, more types of workers must acquire STEM skills to compete in the new labor force.

The report's expanded definition of STEM reveals an often underreported workforce dynamic: Half of all STEM jobs in the nation actually require less than a bachelor's degree. As such, the proliferation of STEM skills across a variety of fields has repercussions for regional public policy and workforce development.

The Link to Metropolitan Chicago
The report includes data on individual metropolitan areas and an analysis of the tri-state Chicago metropolitan statistical area, which includes parts of northwestern Indiana and southeastern Wisconsin. The analysis shows that nearly half (49.3 percent) of all STEM jobs in metropolitan Chicago are available for workers without a four-year college degree. Similar to the nation at large, the region's STEM labor force draws on numerous types of workers. On the higher end of the education spectrum, workers with specialized graduate school education often lead the way in developing novel technologies. Yet the region's technical and vocational STEM workforce helps bring this innovation work into the marketplace by identifying commercial opportunities and cost feasibility; producing, installing, and repairing novel products; and creating process improvements.

Across educational categories, STEM attainment leads to well-paid positions -- STEM workers in metropolitan Chicago earn significantly more compared to non-STEM fields with similar educational requirements. For example, STEM workers in the region with at least a bachelor's degree earn on average $87,740 a year, about a quarter higher than those holding a bachelor's degree or more in a non-STEM field. Yet the most impressive STEM wage boost comes with jobs requiring an associate's degree or less. The $56,606 that regional STEM workers earn on average in these fields is about 60 percent more than the $34,920 earned by those who hold an associate's degree or less in non-STEM fields. Regional policy makers should note this striking wage differential, as STEM attainment seems connected to greatly improved salaries, especially for those with less postsecondary training.

STEM wages in metropolitan Chicago

All jobs
STEM: $72,382
Non-STEM: $42,246

Jobs requiring a bachelor's or more
STEM: $87,740
Non-STEM: $70,357

Jobs requiring an associate's or less
STEM: $56,606
Non-STEM: $34,920

Source: Taken from the Brookings Institution's "The Hidden STEM Economy" infographics, 2013. Based on Brookings analysis of data from the Department of Labor's O*NET program, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and the Strumsky Patents Database.

The Manufacturing Cluster and STEM
Recent CMAP research describes how metropolitan Chicago realizes significant gains through clusters of industry specialization. The new Brookings analysis amplifies this work to show how the region's STEM labor market supports distinct cluster strengths, with manufacturingserving as the best example.

According to Brookings, manufacturing has more high-skilled STEM positions than any other sector. For example, the STEM occupations with the highest knowledge requirement -- such as biomedical engineers, material scientists, or chemical engineers -- all primarily serve manufacturing. Thus, the supply of skilled engineers, scientists, and other technology workers fundamentally influences the competiveness of our region's manufacturing cluster.

Yet the report's expanded the definition of STEM workers also demonstrates that vocational and practical training in science and technology is essential for this vital component of the regional economy. While bioengineers, for example, play an important role in advanced manufacturing innovation, according to Brookings the cluster's largest occupations in sheer numbers require less than a bachelor's degree. Machinists, welders, and industrial machine maintenance workers are each in the top 25 of all STEM occupations in the greater regional economy, with over 10,000 jobs per occupation compared to about 700 in bioengineering.

As described in CMAP's manufacturing cluster drill-down report, the career entry path for these technical manufacturing workers continues to change. In the past, many production workers with little more than a high school diploma used personal networks to find factory jobs; these workers then spent years honing their skills in specific technical fields. In today's rapidly changing manufacturing environment, that old path has become less viable, as technology continues to remake manufacturing skills and demand new competencies. Corresponding data suggest that the region's largest STEM manufacturing occupations by total employment -- machinists, welders, and industrial machine technicians -- all need post-secondary vocational training as a prerequisite for employment. In other words, while STEM employment opportunities exist for manufacturing workers with less than a bachelor's degree, these positions increasingly demand vocational training instead of just a high-school diploma or equivalent.

Policy Implications of the Region's "Hidden" STEM Workforce
The recent Brookings analysis highlights the previously unheralded role of "blue collar" STEM positions demanding less than a bachelor's degree, which constitute half of all STEM jobs in metropolitan Chicago. As a result, more types of workers will need STEM skills to compete in the new labor market.

A large network of workforce development organizations, community colleges, and local governments is working in metropolitan Chicago to reconstruct the workforce pipeline in response to increased STEM skills. For example, the national Brookings report references a regional example -- the Early College STEM Schools partnership between Chicago and five technology companies to offer high schools students a streamlined track to associate's degrees in STEM fields. CMAP's manufacturing cluster drill-down report describes other efforts at length, such as Elgin Community College's partnership with private firms to better shape manufacturing curriculum to meet industry needs.

Despite many worthy regional initiatives, more work needs to be done to increase STEM attainment in the Chicago region. The Brookings report highlights how, compared to other domestic regions, metropolitan Chicago underperforms in its proportion of STEM jobs; STEM constitutes 19.5 percent of all jobs in the region, which ranks metropolitan Chicago 59th out of the 100 largest metro areas. Areas with higher STEM concentrations like Silicon Valley or Washington D.C. have seen improved economic performance, while metropolitan Chicago's position has slipped. In light of this recent analysis, the region's path forward needs to focus on both sides of the dual STEM workforce and target those areas such as manufacturing that capitalize on regional specializations.