The importance of STEM: High school knowledge, skills and occupations in an era of growing inequality

Sandra E. Black, Chandra Muller, Alexandra Spitz-Oener, Ziwei He, Koit Hung, John Robert Warren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs have grown in importance in the labor market in recent decades, and they are widely seen as the jobs of the future. Using data from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, we first investigate the role of employment in STEM occupations when it comes to recent changes in the occupational employment distribution in the U.S. labor market. Next, with data from the High School and Beyond sophomore cohort (Class of 1982) recent midlife follow-up, we investigate the importance of high school students’ mathematics and science coursework, knowledge, and skills for midlife occupations. The Class of 1982 completed high school prior to technological changes altering the demand for labor. We find that individuals who took more advanced levels of high school mathematics coursework enjoyed occupations with a higher percentile rank in the average wage distribution and were more likely to hold STEM-related occupations. Findings suggest that the mathematics coursework enabled workers to adapt and navigate changing labor market demands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104249
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
For much of the analyses on employment and wage polarization we benefitted from the Stata codes made available by Daron Acemoglu, David Autor and David Dorn on the website (, the corresponding references are Acemoglu and Autor(2011) and Autor and Dorn (2013). We thank members of the HS&B Midlife Follow-up research project who are not authors, including Amanda Bosky, Jamie Carroll, Eric Grodsky, Qian Lu, Eve Pattison, Robert Reynolds, and April Sutton for their helpful comments. We also thank members of the AERA Research Knowledge Forum, especially Barbara Schneider and Mark Berends, and the Russell Sage Foundation (RSF) community, including Sheldon Danzinger and RSF 2016–2017 Visiting Scholars, especially Mesmin Destin, Cynthia Feliciano, Arne Kalleberg, Susan Lambert, Helen Levy, Cecilia Ridgeway and Ruben Rumbaut for helpful comments. We thank Liz Johnson for research and reference support. Chandra Muller is grateful for the RSF support as a visiting scholar. We are grateful for the generous support of the High School and Beyond Midlife Follow-Up project. This material is based upon work supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation under grant number 2012–10–27, the National Science Foundation under grant numbers HRD 1348527, HRD 1348557, DRL 1420691, DRL 1420330, and DRL 1420572, the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education under grant numbers R305U140001 and R305U180002, the Spencer Foundation under grant numbers 201500075 and 20160116, and the National Institute on Aging, under award R01AG058719–01A1.This research was also supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under grants numbers P2CHD042849, P2C HD041023, P2C HD047873, and 5 T32 HD007081 (Training Program in Population Studies). The manuscript has been subject to disclosure review and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences in line with the terms of the restricted data user agreement. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other funders.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021


  • STEM occupations
  • education
  • employment polarization
  • wage inequality

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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