Jobs in STEM fields stagnant as Minnesota’s job market rebounds

While nationwide the number of STEM field jobs is dropping, the state’s number is relatively high.

Anne Millerbernd

As Minnesota’s job market improves, jobs in many areas are becoming easier to secure. But for students pursuing a higher science or engineering degree, the demand for their skills may come as a surprise.

The National Science Foundation found in a January collection of data that nationwide, those receiving doctoral degrees in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields are committing to jobs or postdoctoral study at the lowest rate they have in a decade.

But for many students at the University of Minnesota, the level of job security depends on their specific focus. Not all STEM fields can be lumped together to determine success — and some say Minnesota doctoral graduates’ futures in STEM fields seem less bleak than what the national data found.

“There is a variation, even within the STEM fields, around what really is in demand,” said Oriane Casale, assistant director of the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development’s labor market information office. “We see that [a clearer path to an occupation] tends to lead to a better outcome.”

Arturo Schultz, program director for the University’s civil engineering graduate department, said the job market is in favor of engineering students, particularly those in structural engineering.

“All of our grads that have finished their degrees in the last year … have been able to find work usually by the time they leave,” he said.

Schultz said those outcomes were common before the recession in 2007, which Casale said Minnesota entered before most states.

Unemployment in the state is currently at 4.5 percent — down 0.1 percent from May — and the number of job vacancies in the state has been rising steadily for the past few years, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Job Vacancy Survey.

Casale said during the recession, the education level expected by Minnesota employers rose and as the state bounced back, degree requirements fell.

In June, the state had the 10th-lowest unemployment rate in the nation.

Still, there are remaining factors that determine a higher degree’s level of success — especially its area of focus.

In the fourth quarter of last year, 80 percent of responding computer and mathematical employers in Minnesota required post-secondary education and 92 percent required at least one year of previous experience, according to the Job Vacancy Survey.

That contrasts with life, physical and social sciences, where about 95 percent of employers required post-secondary education and just over 80 percent of them required previous experience.

In the survey, the department asks employers twice a year for the lowest level of degree that would qualify someone to fill their positions.

Casale said the job market for biological science graduates isn’t as strong as it is for those who go into engineering and chemistry.

Dani Mae Janssen, a mechanical engineering doctoral candidate, said she hopes to leave the University next spring and pursue work as an academic or do research, potentially around Minneapolis.

She said she doesn’t think employers consider people with less than a master’s degree for open positions in her field. But she said she lacks the internships that other students have and that employers have come to expect.

For now, the only way the University tracks its graduate students after they leave is through their chosen program, said Belinda Cheung, assistant vice provost of the University’s Graduate School, and definitive numbers for given departments and degrees aren’t easy to locate.