Science & Engineering Indicators: Aging of the S&E Workforce

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Publication date: 
20 November 2002

Data on the nation's science and engineering (S&E) workforce, from the National Science Board's "Science and Engineering Indicators: 2002," are highlighted in this FYI and the previous one, FYI #126. Below are selected portions of Chapter Three of the "Indicators." While looking at recent trends (through 1999) in degree production, age of the labor force, and growth of S&E careers, the report does not attempt to estimate the size of the S&E workforce over the next 10-20 years, nor how it will compare with expected job opportunities in S&E fields.

AGING OF WORKFORCE: "The size of the S&E workforce, its productivity, and opportunities for new S&E workers are all greatly affected by the age distribution and retirement patterns of the S&E workforce. For many decades, rapid increases in new entries led to a relatively young S&E workforce with only a small percentage near traditional retirement ages. This general picture is rapidly changing as the individuals who earned S&E degrees in the late 1960s and early 1970s move into what is likely to be the latter part of their careers." With the exception of relatively recent S&E fields such as computer sciences, in 1999 "the greatest population density of individuals with S&E degrees occurs between ages 40 and 49." However, "for all degree levels and fields, only a small portion of the S&E-degreed labor force was near traditional retirement ages: 11.8 percent overall were 55 or older."

According to the Indicators, "This circumstance suggests several likely effects on the future S&E labor force that are important and often overlooked:

"Barring large reductions in degree production or similarly large increases in retirement rates, the number of trained scientists and engineers in the labor force will continue to increase for some time. The number of individuals currently receiving S&E degrees greatly exceeds the number of S&E-degreed workers near traditional retirement ages."

"Barring large increases in degree production, the average age of S&E-degreed workers will rise."

"Barring large reductions in retirement rates, the total number of retirements among S&E-degreed workers will dramatically increase over the next 20 years. This may be particularly true for Ph.D.-holders because of the steepness of their age profile."

However, the "Indicators" point out that "the retirement behavior of individuals can differ in complex ways. Some individuals ‘retire' from a job while continuing to work full or part time...whereas others leave the workforce without a ‘retired' designation from a formal pension plan." In 1999, half of those with bachelor's and master's degrees in S&E fields "left the workforce entirely by age 65, but Ph.D.-holders did not do so until age 68."

EMPLOYMENT TRENDS: "During the 2000-2010 period, employment in S&E occupations is expected to increase about three times faster than the rate for all occupations.... Employment opportunities for S&E jobs are expected to increase by about 47 percent (about 2.2 million jobs.)" In physical science occupations, employment "is expected to increase by about 18 percent (from 239,000 to 283,000 jobs)," with almost half of those jobs in environmental sciences.

"The U.S. S&E labor market continues to grow both in absolute numbers and in its percentage of the total labor market.... In general, labor market conditions for those with S&E degrees, although always better than for college graduates as a whole, have improved during the 1990s. Labor market conditions for new Ph.D. recipients have also been good by most conventional measures - S&E doctorate-holders are employed and doing work relevant to their training - but the gains have come in the nonacademic sectors (i.e., in most fields, a smaller percentage of recent Ph.D. recipients are obtaining tenure-track positions).

"The age structure of the U.S. S&E labor force is likely to produce several major changes in the S&E labor market over the next decade. The number of individuals with S&E degrees reaching traditional retirement ages is expected to triple. Despite this, if S&E degree production remains at current [1999] rates, the number of S&E-trained individuals in the labor market will likely continue to grow for some time, albeit at a lower rate, as the number of new graduates continues to exceed the number of retirees.

"The globalization of the S&E labor force is expanding in two ways: location of S&E employment is becoming more internationally diverse, and S&E workers are becoming more internationally mobile."

These new developments "pose challenges," as noted in the Indicators' Overview. "As new centers of technological excellence arise, firms and universities in the United States may find it increasingly difficult to recruit scientists and engineers from abroad, currently an important source of supply.... These potential developments bear watching, because they would affect U.S. policies that support S&T and the education and training of the domestic S&E workforce."

Much more information on the nation's science and engineering enterprise can be found in the two-volume "Science and Engineering Indicators - 2002." Both volumes are available on the web at A CD-ROM of the Indicators can be ordered, free of charge, from the same site. For a hardcopy version, contact paperpubs [at] or call (301) 947-2722.