The North Carolina House Committee on Advancing Women in STEM met on Oct. 12 to discuss the current framework for STEM fields in the state and ways forward to recruit and retain more women in these careers.

Jeffrey DeBellis, director of economic and policy analysis at the N.C. Department of Commerce, shared with lawmakers that there are 300,000 jobs in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — in the Tar Heel State. That constitutes 6.8% of all occupations.

These jobs pay well — the median wage in 2021 was $94,810 a year, contrasted with non-STEM occupations averaging out near $38,000 a year. For women specifically, average pay is $80,289 per year compared to $43,763 for women in non-STEM fields. 

Wages in STEM fields are also rising faster for women than for men, having jumped 49.6% in the last decade compared to 42.6% for men.

Women are underrepresented in STEM occupations, accounting for 28% of these jobs, while women hold around half of all jobs across the state, according to DeBellis.

STEM jobs are credential intensive, with 82% of the occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. The top skills required for STEM fields include science, programming, operations analysis, technology design, mathematics, systems analysis, systems evaluation, writing, complex problem solving, and reading comprehension.

Seventy-one percent of STEM employers reported difficulty hiring in the current labor-market crunch, according to DeBellis. While that rate is an improvement from employers overall — 81% of whom reported challenges with hiring — the figure is still significant.

The most common challenges faced by employers are too few applicants, lack of employability skills, low pay, lack of experience, lack of soft skills, lack of technical skills, and lack of education.

DeBellis noted that job opportunities for women in STEM fields has increased much faster than for non-STEM fields. Over the last decade, there has been a 70% increase in women’s employment in STEM industries, compared to 17% for women in occupations overall. That jump also appears to be recession proof, with the upward trend continuing even through the recession induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.