No Bachelor’s Degree Required

The ‘secret’ STEM economy revealed

High school dropout Patrick Pickerell began making coiled metal springs at age 17. He went on to learn the precision manufacturing industry from the ground up—taking on jobs from sweeping floors to those involving the rapid prototyping of technology products. He built Peridot, a $10 million-a-year metal manufacturing company in Pleasanton, CA, which is mostly fueled by people without a university degree but who instead have math and fix-it skills.

Peridot’s employees have "math proficiency, but not advanced math, like calculus. Kids that are gear heads are excellent candidates…people who enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together," he said. "It’s a career path with honor and stability."1

Well-paying jobs that require technical knowledge but not a bachelor’s degree represent a hidden science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) economy, according to Jonathan Rothwell, the author of a new report from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The study, titled "The Hidden STEM Economy," found that half of the 26 million jobs in STEM available in the United States do not require four-year college degrees.

Such jobs include auto technicians and mechanics, electricians, machinists, welders, carpenters, IT technicians, robotics technicians and some nursing positions. These occupations pay an average of $53,000 a year—10% more than non-STEM jobs requiring a similar education level.2

"What we commonly classify as being blue-collar jobs have become increasingly demanding in terms of the successful employee’s proficiencies," said Steve Hine, a labor market economist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.3

Shunned by government, leaders

In addition to shining a spotlight on STEM talent hidden in the blue-collar workforce, the report urges the United States to focus more support toward STEM careers that do not require at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify. The current narrow definition of STEM held by policymakers and leaders has serious funding implications.

Of the $4.3 billion spent by the U.S. federal government on STEM education, only one-fifth goes to support education or training below the bachelor’s degree level. The National Science Foundation spends little on community colleges. Such limited funding makes it more difficult for young workers to receive training for STEM careers that do not require as much formal education and for older adults to obtain continuing education.4

Improved communication between industry and education is necessary to guide STEM efforts, said Deborah Hopen, a management consultant and past president of ASQ, who also served as a business representative and president of the Puget Sound School to Work Life Council in Washington.

"What does it take to succeed as the CEO of a food manufacturer or a plant maintenance technician? The answers can be complex and may vary by region, organizational culture and size," Hopen said. "If a dialogue is not established between employers and educators to clarify these requirements, there is little hope that a reasonable framework can be established to tackle the STEM challenge."

Key to innovation

Though they get little credit, blue-collar STEM workers are vital to economic growth and innovation, Rothwell said. The bachelor’s and graduate level-degreed STEM workforce may keep American organizations on the cutting edge of technical development, but the other STEM workforce—supplied by high schools, vocational schools and community colleges—is critical to the implementation of new ideas, providing researchers input on the feasibility of design options, cost estimates and other practical aspects of technological development.

Nonbachelor’s degree STEM jobs improve a metropolitan area’s overall economic performance, the study found.

"The presence of sub-bachelor’s-degreed STEM workers helps boost innovation measures one-fourth to one-half as much as bachelor’s degree STEM workers, holding other factors constant. Concentrations of these jobs are also associated with less income inequality," Rothwell said.5

Employment hot spots

STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree tend to be clustered in specific metropolitan areas. Familiar high-tech job hubs such as San Jose, CA, and Washington, D.C., were identified in the report. Sub-bachelor’s degree-level STEM jobs, however, prevail in every large metropolitan area. Baton Rouge, LA, Birmingham, AL, New Orleans, Cape Coral/Fort Myers, FL, and Wichita, KS, are home to the largest numbers of STEM jobs in fields that do not require four-year college degrees.6

In some regions, such as Baton Rouge, more high schools are offering classes in welding and shop, but many students and their parents do not recognize the opportunities that exist in these fields, said Connie Fabré, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance.

"People are still in the mode of thinking that a four-year college degree is the best avenue to prosperity, but that is not always the case," Fabré said. "A good living can be made in skilled crafts."7

More organizations must open their doors to students and expose them to different career options, Hopen said. Internships, co-op programs, mentoring relationships and on-site research opportunities provide students with valuable, real-world insight to make educated career decisions.

"Students need as many opportunities to test their interests and competencies as possible and they need windows into the working world to get realistic views of different careers," Hopen added.

Even if a college degree is not required, these jobs still have rigorous requirements and training programs. Many positions involve apprenticeships that can last several years and require studies in math, physics and chemistry.8

Because just one-third of all adults graduate from college with a four-year degree or better, Rothwell said something needs to be done to avoid missed opportunities to capture talent.

"There’s much to be said for the four-year degree—that’s great—but two-thirds of young people are not completing bachelors’ degrees," Rothwell said. "Will they be condemned to low-paying, low-skill, low-growth jobs or is there a career path for decent-paying jobs? We think there are a lot of jobs for them in the STEM economy."9

—Megan Schmidt, contributing editor


  1. Lisa M. Krieger, "‘Hidden’ Economy in Silicon Valley Built Without Advanced Degrees," San Jose Mercury News, June 10, 2013, http://mercurynews.com/science/ci_23424656/hidden-economy-silicon-valley-built-without-advanced-degrees.
  2. Jonathan Rothwell, "The Hidden STEM Economy," Brookings Institution, June 2013, http://brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2013/06/10%20stem%20economy%20rothwell/thehiddenstemeconomy610.pdf.
  3. Adam Belz, "Not All Good Twin Cities Jobs Require a 4-Year College Degree," Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 11, 2013, http://m.startribune.com/news/?id=210933381&c=y.
  4. Rothwell, "The Hidden STEM Economy," see reference 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Timothy Boone, "Baton Rouge Ranks First in STEM Jobs Report," The Advocate, June 15, 2013.
  8. Mike Sauter, "High-tech Jobs That Don’t Require College Degree," USA TODAY, July 6, 2013, http://usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/07/06/high-tech-jobs-no-college-degree/2487025.
  9. Nancy Dahlberg, "Study: Miami Area Ranks Low for Share of STEM Jobs," Miami Herald, June 10, 2013, http://miamiherald.com/2013/06/10/3442597_p2/study-miami-area-ranks-low-for.html.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Nick Leifeld.

RESIDENCE: Cedarburg, WI.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.

CURRENT JOB: Vice president of corporate compliance and Black Belt for continuous improvement at Serigraph Co., an industrial printing firm based in West Bend, WI.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: While he worked at snack-food maker Frito-Lay as a first-line supervisor, Leifeld was taught statistical process control to reduce process variation and lower costs.

PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: Leifeld was the shift production manager at Frito-Lay in Beloit for one year. He was later selected to be a part of the start-up team to begin production at a new flagship plant in Frankfort, IN.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Part of Milwaukee section leadership team and membership chair for the Milwaukee section.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award examiner for six years; Wisconsin Forward Award (WFA) senior examiner for two years; past WFA board member and chair. Spearheaded effort for Serigraph to earn the excellence level, the highest level of recognition, from Wisconsin Forward Award.

RECENT AWARDS: Leifeld was included in the 2012 class of ASQ fellows.

PERSONAL: Married for 38 years. His one son served in the Air Force and now works as a pilot.

FAVORITE WAYS TO RELAX: Leifeld is an avid bicyclist and rides 5,000 to 6,000 miles each year. He also hikes and cross country skis. He’s competed in 22 American Birkebeiner races, the largest North American cross-country ski marathon, which is held in northern Wisconsin every February.

QUALITY QUOTE: Quality requires planning, commitment and perseverance to follow through long after a product or service is launched.


Test Takers Caught Cheating
On ASQ Certification Exam

Four ASQ certification test takers have forfeited their certifications after it was discovered they shared answers and information during an exam.

The certification candidates, who are not being identified, forfeited their certifications from the March exam and any previous ASQ certifications they had acquired. They also are not allowed to seek any ASQ certifications for five years.

After compiling the test results from the March exam, ASQ’s Certification Offerings staff analyzed the four individuals’ exam responses, which were nearly identical, and reviewed the responses for irregularities. It was determined that the likelihood of the statistically significant anomalies was exceptionally remote.

An ethics subcommittee to the Certification Board was formed to study this rare situation and circumstances as it related to already-approved and published procedures and policies. The subcommittee confirmed that there was enough evidence to determine the test takers had shared answers.

ASQ found the proctor for the exam was, "at the very least," negligent in the duties involved, and the individual is barred from proctoring future ASQ exams, ASQ said in a prepared statement.


Online Options Please
More Wireless Customers

Satisfaction with wireless carriers’ customer care service has been boosted to its highest level since 2009, perhaps because the frequency of use and the performance of online channels—especially the chat function—has grown, according to a recent J.D. Power and Associates study. Key findings from the study include:

  • Among full-service wireless customers who solved their issue online, 42% report having used the chat function, up six percentage points.
  • Among customers contacting their service provider via an online channel, overall satisfaction is highest when the chat function is used.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of noncontract customers said they have a carrier-based account management app on their phone to track use, review their plan and contact their carrier. Satisfaction is 93 points higher among customers with a carrier-based app than among those without one.
  • Nearly one-fifth (17%) of full-service customers say they have used YouTube to resolve a problem regarding their wireless service.

"The higher levels of satisfaction with online chat are partially due to the efficiency and immediacy of the experience, particularly with service issues or questions that are easier to resolve in this environment, such as billing or service/device questions pertaining to upgrades," said Kirk Parsons, senior director of the telecom services practice at J.D. Power.

"However, as carriers release new products and services to meet consumer demand, such automated systems as online chat must continue to evolve to address harder-to-answer questions related to technology support as customers gain confidence in using alternative contact channels for convenience-related reasons," he said. For more information about the study, visit http://tinyurl.com/ls4tk5t.


Gluten-Free Labeling Gets
Clarification From FDA

After six years of study and discussion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a new standard for labels that will make shopping easier for consumers on gluten-restricted diets.

Last month, the FDA announced a rule that products labeled "gluten-free" still won’t have to be free of wheat, rye and barley and their derivatives, but they will need to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

In part, the rule said: "Most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those levels set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards."

"Adherence to a gluten-free diet is the key to treating celiac disease, which can be very disruptive to everyday life," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said. "The FDA’s new ‘gluten-free’ definition will help people with this condition make food choices with confidence and allow them to better manage their health."

Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, said the rule originally proposed during the George W. Bush administration was delayed because the agency was evaluating what standard was correct.


ASQ News

TEAM ENTRIES DUE Entries for the International Team Excellence Award process are due Sept. 9. The fee is $600. For more information, visit http://wcqi.asq.org/team-competition/index.html.

MEMBER UNIT DISCUSSION ASQ’s Community Outreach Committee is hosting a webchat for members and member leaders to learn how greater community involvement and collaboration—specifically, with area business executives and organizational leaders—can increase visibility, build relevance, spark enthusiasm and creativity, and give greater purpose, meaning and direction to ASQ member units. The online conversation will address concerns about ASQ member unit retention and satisfaction, as well as encourage discussion by offering suggestions and new best practices to build member unit relevance, enhance unit value proposition and increase growth. The Google+ Hangout will be held at 8 p.m. EDT Sept. 12. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/1o3cU8.

IEC ANNUAL MEETING ASQ will host the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) annual meeting for members of Technical Committee 59 on Dependability Oct. 14-18. The IEC prepares and publishes international standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies, known collectively as electrotechnology. For information about ASQ standards involvement, visit www.asq.org/standards.

HEALTHCARE GROUP The New England Healthcare special interest group (SIG) formed earlier this year has officially become part of the ASQ Boston Section. The SIG’s primary goal is to create an atmosphere of cooperation among local and regional healthcare professionals allowing them to share their success stories. Visit www.asqboston.org/sig to access more information, review scheduled events and connect with SIG leadership team members.

NQEC EARLYBIRD PRICING Discounted pricing for those who register early for ASQ’S Education Division’s 21st National Quality Education Conference will expire Oct. 14. The conference, to be held Nov. 17-18 in Milwaukee, will feature two keynote speakers, dozens of sessions, as well as live presentations from ASQ’s Education Team Excellence Recognition Process recipients. For more information about the conference, visit http://nqec.asq.org.

ASQ Journal Spotlight

Every month, QP highlights an open-access article from one of ASQ’s seven other journals. This month, read "Accelerated Test Methods for Reliability Prediction," which appeared in April edition of the Journal of Quality Technology (JQT).

The article reviews the basics of accelerated life testing, highly accelerated life testing, highly accelerated stress screening and highly accelerated stress auditing.

To access the article, click on the "Current Issue" link on JQT’s website: http://asq.org/pub/jqt. From there, you also can find a link to information about subscribing to the quarterly publication.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers