Seattle ranked No. 1 overall as the best U.S. city for STEM professionals in 2017.

The United States ranks within the top 10 most innovative countries in the world, thanks to the unique minds of scientists, engineers and innovators.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills are coveted assets for employers, not just in STEM-related fields, but across all industries—and the proof is in the numbers.

The annual average wage for all STEM positions in the country is $85,570, nearly double the national average for all jobs at $47,230.
STEM professionals are expected to expand 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the unemployment rate for STEM job-seekers is approximately half the national average.

These stats offer some significant benefits for future STEM graduates and professionals, but the landscape is brighter in some regions of the U.S. than in others, according to a new survey.

Analysts from WalletHub used 17 key metrics to compare STEM job markets in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas. The 17 metrics were used to evaluate two dimensions—“professional opportunities” and “STEM-friendly environment.”

Examples of the metrics include share of workforce in STEM and STEM-employment growth, which both received double-weight points, R&D spending and R&D intensity, quality of engineering universities and family-friendliness, among others.

The professional opportunities dimension included 70 possible points, while STEM-friendly environment offered 30 total points.
Each metro area was graded on a 100-point scale, and the overall scores for each area were calculated based on their weighted average across all metrics. The final scores were used to rank each area in order from 1 to 100.

The leaders
The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area in Washington ranked first overall with a total score of 66.35, followed by the Silicon Valley Hub of San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., and San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, Calif., rounding out the top three.

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue are anchored by major players like Amazon and Microsoft, and are home to some of the highest-quality engineering universities, based on WalletHub’s analysis. In addition to securing the No. 1 spot overall, Seattle also scored highest in the professional opportunities dimension. The city has the most per-capita job openings for STEM graduates at 108, which is 54 times more than in Deltona, Fla., the metro area with the fewest at two.

“In terms of trends, it was interesting to find that Silicon Valley is no longer number one. The Seattle metro now has the most STEM job openings in the country, at almost 98 per 1,000 residents, and the second highest STEM employment, at 12 percent of total employment,” Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst, told Laboratory Equipment.

Six of the top 10 metropolitan areas from a similar 2016 analysis were able to maintain a top 10 ranking for 2017.

Texas, and more specifically the Austin-Round Rock region, continues to progress as an appealing hub for STEM professionals. Austin ranked sixth overall, and Houston has the highest annual median wage at $94,110 (adjusted for cost of living).

A trend toward higher employment growth favors the east coast of the U.S., with New York-Newark-Jersey City, N.J. taking first, along with Springfield, Mass.; Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, N.C./S.C.; and Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Penn., all ranking among the top five in the category.

Pittsburgh, which ranked 10th overall, has the best STEM-friendly environment.

Another noteworthy finding is that San Jose, Calif., has the highest percentage of all workers in STEM occupations at 22.2 percent, which is 13 times higher than in McAllen, Texas, the metro area with the lowest at 1.7 percent.

“The areas at the top of the list offer great opportunities and an attractive environment for STEM professionals to grow," said Gonzalez.
Other areas in the top 10 overall include: Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Mass.-N.H.; Springfield, Mass.; Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.-Wis.; Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Ga.; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.Va.; and Pittsburgh.

The weakest scores
Just as the majority of the top metro areas have maintained their high positions year after year, similar consistency was seen among areas at the bottom of the list.

Florida in particular seems to be struggling to boost its presence, with four of its major metro areas listed among the 10 weakest scores (Daytona Beach, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Lakeland). Orlando and Tampa hover in the middle of the pack at 33rd and 39th, respectively.

But Jackson, Miss., took last place with an overall score of 27.08. It ranked 100th in the STEM-friendly environment dimension, and 96th for professional opportunities. Poor school performance scores in the state could play a role in its low score. According to the 2016 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mississippi’s public schools ranked second to last of all 50 states.

Joining Mississippi, Honolulu, Hawaii; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.; Lakeland, Fla.; and Bridgeport, Conn., were all repeats at the bottom of the list this year.

WalletHub’s analysts collected data for their rankings from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Center on Education and the Workforce, National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation, among other sources.

Valuable assets
In addition to providing the rankings, the analysis also hinted at some struggles within STEM education and professions.

Despite the generally favorable outlook for STEM jobs across the U.S., a paradox exists because the U.S. has the reputation of an “unwelcoming environment” for STEM professionals, which may influence students to steer away from their field of interest.

“We have an unwelcoming STEM culture, which supports a lack of interest in STEM courses and careers, particularly among females, people of color, and people with disabilities, because of entrenched cultural attitudes and beliefs about innate abilities,” said Carolyn Parker, assistant professor of STEM education at Johns Hopkins University.

Additionally, recent census figures have shown that many students who graduate college with a STEM degree end up working in an unrelated field.

Part of the reason for this may be how STEM jobs are classified, according to Peter Turner, director of the Institute for STEM Education and professor of mathematics and computer science at Clarkson University.

“Most STEM grads do work in STEM fields, but often in areas where they are using those skills for other applications,” explained Turner.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies engineering professors as working in education, not STEM. He also notes that chemists, biostatisticians and other positions involved in medical research or pharmaceuticals are technically working in medicine, not STEM.

But U.S. students are also falling behind in math and science test scores compared with other countries around the globe. Results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the U.S. 35th out of 64 countries in math, and 27th in science.

So how can the U.S. encourage more students to enroll in STEM undergraduate programs and retain the best STEM workforce? By improving the country’s educational system, says Kristopher Childs, assistant professor of STEM Education in the Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University.  

“The U.S. needs to focus on a systematic process to cultivate STEM throughout children’s educational experiences. This will lead to the attraction of more individuals to the STEM field and assist in the retention of STEM professionals,” said Childs, who also recently wrote an initiative, in collaboration with the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, which looks to advance active STEM education for the country’s youngest learners. The initiative was recently accepted by the White House.

Catherine Weinberger, an affiliate with the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research at the University of California, believes one way to draw in new STEM students is through what she calls a “try your vegetables” approach, requiring all undergraduate students to enroll in a computer science class, while ensuring the class is interesting and engaging.

“This type of policy tends to dramatically increase the number of students choosing the major, especially among students who might not initially think of themselves as the computer science type. We will all benefit if we can succeed in encouraging a broader cross-section of capable students to enter STEM fields,” she said.

Local governments of the metro areas who ranked at the bottom of the WalletHub analysis can utilize similar innovative approaches to attract more STEM professionals to their cities.

Childs noted that local authorities tend to focus on historical decisions and rationale for appealing STEM grads as opposed to embracing innovation, change and new ways of thinking.

“Localities must understand STEM graduates have been exposed to technology and innovation their entire lives and are seeking cities that can continue to provide this exposure.”