The money lies in the numbers.

Careers and degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are among the highest-paying and fastest-growing of any occupational areas, researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce have found. STEM jobs also have a smaller salary gap between men and women compared to other fields, according to the study published Thursday.

“We were working on a broader research study on occupational fields, and our initial work in STEM provoked more and more questions,” said Michelle Melton, a research analyst at the center and co-author of the report. “Essentially, STEM majors make more than anyone else no matter what they become.”

According to the report, 63 percent of associate degrees in STEM earn more than bachelor’s degrees in non-STEM occupations. Furthermore, 47 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM occupations earn more than Ph.D.s in non-STEM occupations.

The study separated the STEM field into those who majored in STEM subjects and those who pursue careers in STEM fields without necessarily studying it in school. The results showed that STEM professional fields are growing and offer higher salaries than other occupations. Whether or not graduates choose to enter STEM fields, STEM-degree holders earn higher salaries than graduates with non-STEM degrees.

The study also showed that more than 70 percent of STEM workers with a high school or college education make more than the average for workers in all other occupations at the same education level.

“However, many people who have STEM degrees often don’t work in STEM jobs,” Melton said. “The benefit is not just in the higher salary of a STEM position but the skill-set coming from a STEM education.”

These research findings are relevant to all students, said George Truskey, senior associate dean for research in the Pratt School of Engineering and director of undergraduate studies in the department of biomedical engineering, adding that undergraduate students and high school seniors should keep the findings in mind when making academic decisions.

“The numbers matter, and it can’t hurt to look at them when thinking about the future,” Truskey said. “Especially with the economy and job outlook as unpredictable as it is.”

He said he does not think, however, that any student should give up on their personal passions to pursue STEM in light of these findings.

In the past decade, Pratt has seen an increased number of students transferring into engineering programs and fewer students choosing to transfer out, he noted.

“We hope this study will have a positive effect—it confirms a lot of things we have assumed over the years,” he said. “But students shouldn’t ‘settle’ for a STEM job. They must look at what they find enjoyable.”

Potential for growth

STEM jobs nationwide are expected to grow from 6.8 million to 8 million by 2018, the study found. About 92 percent of these positions will require some postsecondary education and given that many STEM students choose to enter alternative professional fields, there is a shortage of viable candidates. In North Carolina alone, the research predicts that there will be 212,820 STEM professions by 2018—an increase from 182,570 in 2008. This will constitute 4 percent of all jobs in the state in 2018, and 91 percent of these jobs will require postsecondary education.

“More people are choosing to study in these fields but divert to other professions once they leave their education so the demand for STEM workers is rising,” Melton said. “This is reflected in the fact that STEM salaries have been steadily rising for the past 30 years.”

Melton noted that the higher pay tied to STEM undergraduate degrees compared to their non-STEM counterparts drive more interest in STEM occupations. But as people earn more advanced degrees, they opt for other fields as the salary benefits of a STEM degree versus a non-STEM degree become less pronounced.

Part of the research analyzed how career paths develop from a STEM educational background. The findings state that of 100 undergraduates, 19 graduate with a STEM degree, but only eight continue work in STEM fields 10 years after graduation.

“This diversion is seen especially with women,” Melton said. “Women have all the skills and capabilities to work in STEM fields but often opt into more care-giving jobs such as [being a] doctor. Whether it is due to socialization or biological preference, more women are drawn to care-giving fields with more human interaction.”

The study showed that of 100 female bachelor of arts students, 12 graduate with a STEM major but only three continue to work in STEM fields 10 years after graduation.

‘Not a free choice’

Melton said she believes the reduced salary gap between genders in STEM occupations is both a positive and negative issue. Although the salary inequality between men and women is smaller in STEM professions, more women leave the STEM track than men, she noted.

Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education and co-director of the Baldwin Scholars program, said women may be forced to leave STEM professions due to reasons aside from personal preferences.

“A word like choice is tricky... because there is a lot of research that shows it’s not a free choice to opt out,” Lisker said. “Women find it difficult to combine requirements of job with family time.”

Part of the reason that the STEM jobs are challenging and demanding relates to the shortage of workers available to fill the positions, she added. But measures can and should be taken to remedy the unrealistic expectations for women.

“The onus in some ways needs to be on the STEM field to provide a feasible work place for women with child care, health care and flexibility,” Lisker said. “Duke has looked at its family-friendly benefits for those in the STEM field here and made adjustments accordingly so that women do not need to pick between family and career.”

These alterations are not meant to favor women—men can take advantage of them as well, she added. Duke, for example, has created provisions to allow its STEM employees to turn off the tenure clock in case life-changing circumstances force them to leave work and then allow to return their position. Duke has also established as well as creating parental leave instead of just maternal leave.

Although Lisker said she believes these changes should be made to assist women entering these fields, women should not be pushed into STEM occupations if they lack interest in them.

In Pratt, women make up 30 percent of the student body, and the administration makes active efforts to recruit women into the field, Truskey said. He added that there is a definite increase but not as fast as he would like.

“We try to expose but not push one way or the other,” he said. “Our prerogative is to make this field more inviting to women not to lure them in. We care about giving the right education and advice but the choice should be their own.”