As a firestorm of debate rages in Congress over economic stability, the Department of Commerce released a report on Wednesday asserting that jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) play "a key role in the sustained growth and stability of the U.S. economy."
Although science and engineering workers represent a relatively small portion of the labor market, the report projected that between 2008 and 2018, science and technology-focused jobs would grow by 17 percent -- nearly twice the 9.8 percent rate of growth for other occupations.
"One of the real concerns is, how do you create a competitive economy and workforce?" Acting Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank told HuffPost. "We need to create skills that will keep us at the forefront -- and this is a group that is crucial for the country's long term competitiveness and innovation."
Science-based jobs are not only important for future growth, they have also fared well during the current sluggish economy. According to the report, the unemployment rate for science and engineering degree holders was half the national rate. While STEM workers experienced increased unemployment from 2007 to 2009, their jobless rate in 2010 was at 5.3 percent. The unemployment rate for other sectors was nearly 10 percent.
"STEM occupations are really good occupations," Blank said. "It’s important that people get that message."
The report, which analyzed data from the Census Department's 2009 American Community Survey and the Bureau of Labor's Current Population Survey, found that there were 7.6 million STEM workers in the U.S., representing 5.5 percent of the national workforce in 2010.
Further making the case for the sciences, the report concluded that STEM-educated graduates at any level -- whether high school, college and graduate degrees -- make 26 percent more money overall than counterparts who have studied in other fields.
And this remains true regardless of the fields STEM degree holders ultimately pursue. Even STEM grads who took jobs in fields unrelated to science, technology, engineering and math were able to command higher salaries on average.
In some part, the success of graduates who study the sciences is to be expected. Sixty-eight percent of workers in the sciences have a bachelor's degree or higher, and income rates tend to rise with additional education. The report noted that other factors independent of focusing on the sciences, including race, age and socioeconomic factors, play a role in determining income.
Yet when the authors did a controlled for other factors, STEM workers still enjoyed higher wages, although they did diminished to a degree.
Echoing President Obama's recent push for innovation and greater emphasis on science and math education, Mark Doms, a chief economist at the Department of Commerce, told HuffPost that community colleges and technical colleges play a key role in training -- and retraining -- skilled workers, as well as preparing Americans for the 21st century jobs market.
"A Microsoft-trained engineer does not need to go to four year college," Doms said.
But he cautioned the community colleges, which receive funding from state and local governments, are under threat, as states find ways to cope with diminished revenues.
"They are firing staff, shutting offices and cutting budgets," Doms said.
Blank, for her part, spoke to the difficulty facing would-be science graduates -- even at four year colleges.
"[Those institutions] tend to be much smaller, with lower admission rates, compared to liberal arts schools around the country. So you're constraining the supply of a group you don’t actually want to constrain."
The question, Blank said, is: "How to bring more people in?"
"Perhaps we need more schools to serve people of these backgrounds better," she said. "It's something the higher education folks need to be debating."