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Where Have Our Scientists Gone?

August 28, 2012

Education is a key variable in measuring the economic competitiveness of a region. Generally, the Kansas City metro does fairly well in this category. Overall, 32 percent of area residents aged 25 and over have at least a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, only 28 percent do. New data available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey allows us to drill down a bit into this education data and find out what fields of study were most common for those with bachelor’s degrees.

In the survey, people aged 25 and up with a bachelor’s degree were asked to name the specific field in which they earned the degree. All degree fields were consolidated into five general categories:

  • Science and Engineering
  • Science and Engineering Related
  • Business
  • Education
  • Arts-Humanities-Other.

A detailed report explaining the different categories can be found here.

There were some surprising differences between the Kansas City region and the nation. Nationwide, 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are in the Science and Engineering fields (which includes the social sciences, physical sciences, math and computer degrees). In Kansas City, it’s just 29 percent. Kansas City has slightly higher percentages in the other categories.

This is surprising given Kansas City’s reputation of being an engineering hub. The Kansas City area has a high location quotient in engineering services employment (1.63, where 1 is the national average).

When we look at some of the detailed percentages within Science and Engineering, we see that Engineering is slightly lower than the U.S. We do have a higher percentage in computers-math-statistics and biology-agriculture and environmental.

One potential explanation for this is that Kansas City is headquarters to a few large engineering firms. Therefore many of the people working in the engineering industry in Kansas City don’t need degrees in engineering. A headquartered engineering firm needs more employees from with other backgrounds (management, finance, administrative) than a branch office in another city would.

The higher than national percentage in computer, math and statistics is likely a reflection of the strong IT growth in the region. This field of study could grow even more. Many area IT firms are having difficulty in finding qualified workers for certain positions. This fact may inspire students to pursue degrees in IT related fields.

It is worth noting that these are degrees held by area residents, so it says little, if anything about the degree offerings from area colleges and universities. Area schools might, for example, be training engineers who take jobs outside the area.

A look at the degree fields also shows the area is behind a collection of peer metros in percentage of Bachelor’s degrees in Science and Engineering fields.

This of course, raises a few concerns. While metro areas are striving to capture innovative talent for their future workforce, it would make sense that regions either produce or attract this talent will have an edge. Why does Kansas City lag in these Science and Engineering degrees despite strong businesses in those fields? Will the lack of these degrees make it difficult for science and engineering companies to be successful here in the future?

These are just a few questions the Kansas City area should begin to address to maintain its place in the next economy.

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