The Buffalo-Niagara Falls region has more than 90,000 jobs that require a background in science, technology, engineering or math, but those STEM jobs make up a smaller proportion of the total employment picture than they do in Albany, Rochester and other peer metropolitan areas.
That’s one of the highlights of a comprehensive new report on the STEM economy from the Brookings Institution, which also found that the Buffalo area generates patented innovations at a lower rate than some communities of similar size.
“We’re still in the early stages of evolving that high-tech economy,” said Marnie LaVigne, the University at Buffalo’s associate vice president of economic development.
The report from the national think tank details the growing role STEM-related jobs are playing in the national economy, rising from previous estimates of 5 percent to 20 percent of all employment under Brookings’ expanded definition of a STEM job.
Brookings emphasizes that the STEM economy includes scores of jobs – including construction workers and health technicians – that don’t require an advanced degree.
“University attendance is not the only path to a STEM career,” said Jonathan T. Rothwell, a Brookings associate fellow and report author, in a statement. “While highly educated STEM professionals are a vital part of the economy, many less-educated, and often blue-collar, STEM workers contribute to economic growth and innovation in a variety of ways.”
For area economists and business-development officials, the Brookings report validates efforts to invest in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, build on life-sciences and materials-sciences research conducted here, and recruit biotech and advanced manufacturing firms.
And it shows the need to focus more resources on preparing the area’s unemployed or underemployed to take STEM-related jobs that require only certificates or associate degrees, several said, citing initiatives under way at Erie Community College and other schools.
“The community college should renew its emphasis on educating people for technical jobs,” said George M. Palumbo, a Canisius College economist.
The newly released report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program looks at the STEM economy broadly and presents extensive data on the high-tech sector in each of the 100 largest metro areas in the country.
The main message from the report is its expanded view of science, math and technology jobs to take in positions that weren’t previously included in the STEM classification.
Brookings contends that policy makers need to recognize the breadth of positions, including those that don’t require an associate degree, that are part of the STEM sector, given its growing significance in the economy as a whole.
As of 2011, 26 million American jobs, or 1 out of 5, require a background in one of the STEM fields, according to Brookings, and one-third of all STEM jobs are craft professional or blue-collar positions.
Regions with a larger STEM workforce generally have a stronger overall economic performance, Rothwell said, and when comparing workers of the same educational level, those in a STEM field earn more on average than workers in a non-STEM position.
For example, among workers holding less than a bachelor’s degree, the STEM worker earns $53,000 on average, while the worker in a non-STEM field earns $33,000.
“Job growth, employment rates, patenting, incomes and exports are all higher in STEM-oriented economies,” Rothwell said in the statement.
The Brookings report includes the raw number of STEM jobs in the 100 largest metro areas in this country, the percentage of STEM jobs among total employment, the average salaries paid to STEM and non-STEM workers, and other region-by-region data.
For Buffalo-Niagara Falls, our 94,480 STEM jobs rank us No. 50 in the country, roughly the same as our population rank.
However, for STEM jobs as a percentage of all regional jobs, our 18.5 percent ranks 73rd, far lower than Albany’s 21.2 percent (26th in the country) or Rochester’s 20.9 percent (30th nationally).
And when looking at patents earned by scientists in each region, a key indicator of innovation, our rate of 0.46 patents per 1,000 workers ranks us 61st among U.S. metro areas, well below that of Rochester’s 2.32 (No. 6), Albany’s 1.91 (No. 9) and Syracuse’s 0.84 (No. 32).
Canisius’ Palumbo said it’s important to keep in mind that Albany benefits from its position as the seat of state government and as the home to tens of thousands of state workers, including some in technical positions.
He pointed out that Albany’s 14,120 workers in computer occupations – compared with Buffalo’s 11,920 in the same category – likely include many public workers. Rothwell, the Brookings author, told The News that public-sector STEM workers are included in the report data.
“They’re growing on the backs of the taxes paid by the rest of the state,” Palumbo said of the Capital District.
Rochester has had a head start over this region when it comes to jobs in STEM industries, including those at Xerox, Bausch & Lomb and Kodak, UB’s LaVigne noted.
Both LaVigne and Paul Pfeiffer, director of investor and public relations for the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, say the report confirms the need to focus recruiting and business development efforts on advanced manufacturing and biotech companies.
Those sectors are two of the sectors flagged as having growth potential in the state’s “Buffalo Billion” economic-development pledge, Pfeiffer noted. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Tax Free New York” proposal, which is aimed at unlocking the economic-development potential of upstate New York’s public universities, likely will draw interest from STEM companies.
But this region needs to make sure its workforce is prepared to fill science and technology positions, whether they require a Ph.D. or a professional certificate, experts said.
ECC has long offered programs meant to train workers for biomedical jobs, and a recently released consultant’s report called for turning the ECC North Campus into a hub for the college’s STEM courses.
“This is the wave of the future, and this is where the jobs of the future are going to be,” Pfeiffer said.