There has been no shortage of efforts to define exactly what is a technology or STEM job. We can add another entry to the mix with STEM and the American Workforce, a new report from a coalition of primarily science associations.

Its key findings: STEM jobs are one-third of direct employment, two-thirds of total employment, 69% of the country’s gross domestic product and contribute $2.3 trillion in annual federal tax revenue. Those are some really big numbers!

The highly regarded State Science & Technology Institute offers an analysis and a warning that STEM proponents might be setting themselves up for a fall with their assumptions and strategy.

The authors highlight that 60 percent of STEM jobs are filled by people without bachelor’s degrees. Those are eye-popping numbers until one starts to dig into what the report considers a STEM job, which were decided on a case-by-case basis according to the occupation’s sector and educational requirements. 

As far as basic political calculus goes, the motivation behind the expansive view of STEM taken by these reports, and others, is clear: increase the number of stakeholders who feel relevant to STEM employment so that there will be more support to increase the investments made into STEM initiatives.

The hidden assumptions within this political calculus, however, may cause challenges for current STEM proponents over the long run. If STEM affects most jobs – and if you take a broad view of STEM earnestly, it is not difficult to make the case that science, technology, engineering and math affect every job –  then any additional resources provided for STEM initiatives become easy to assign in the same way that investments in general workforce initiatives are assigned.

To a degree, this evolution from a more specific STEM advocacy effort – focused largely around coding, engineering, and lab research – into a more generalist movement, is emblematic of the typical development of issue campaigns. Nonetheless, proponents of STEM initiatives should take care to be clear about exactly what they are advocating and why.

If the goal of your STEM advocacy is to support investments in education and training for high-impact fields that do not already receive substantial attention from workforce boards (such as nursing); provide average salaries in the mid-six digits (such as medical doctors); or, fields that pay mediocre wages (such as credit authorizers), then an expansive definition of STEM may set up false expectations for your prospective funders, as well as your advocacy partners. 

Adam H. Berry is vice president of economic development and technology at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. He joined the organization in 2019.