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Portland STEM Employment: How We Compare to Other Areas
by Amy Vander Vliet
Published Jul-18-2013

About 72,000 people in the greater Portland metro area work in STEM fields, the collective fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, where educational requirements are high and the average wage tops $76,000 annually.

It seems that depending on the day or the source, Portland allegedly performs either well or poorly when it comes to STEM jobs. Do we have a lot? Not enough? Do we pay more than other areas, or less? This second installment of STEM analysis compares Portland's STEM employment and wages with the nation and other metro areas across the country.

Portland is Highly Concentrated in STEM Employment
Despite our reputation as a haven for slackers with under-utilized college degrees, Portland actually has a significantly higher concentration of STEM employment than the nation. STEM jobs account for 7.2 percent of our employment. In comparison, STEM jobs account for 5.8 percent of employment in the combined metropolitan portion of the U.S. In other words, Portland is 25 percent more concentrated in STEM employment than metro U.S.

Only 12 of the 50 largest metro areas have proportionately more STEM employment than Portland. San Jose tops the list - by far - where nearly one out of every six jobs is in a STEM field, making it three times as concentrated in these jobs as metro U.S. This makes sense, given the headquarter presence of tech and Internet behemoths Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo. Seattle (with Amazon and Microsoft) and Washington DC (with a substantial defense-related sector) round out the top three. Portland, with our relatively large high-tech manufacturing and software sectors, has a greater proportion of STEM employment than Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta.

By individual occupation, Portland has a significantly greater concentration of employment in electrical and electronics engineering technicians, web developers, 'all other' computer occupations, and electronic engineers compared with metro U.S. We're also well represented by architects, industrial engineers, and civil engineers. On the other end of the spectrum, we have fewer chemical technicians, operations research analysts, and chemical engineers relative to metro U.S.

Average STEM Wage in Portland Below National Metro Average
Portland metro's average wage across all occupations was $48,750 in 2012, 3.8 percent higher than the U.S. metro average. For all STEM occupations combined, Portland's average wage was $77,206; 2.1 percent lower than the U.S. metro average of $78,878.

STEM employment is comprised of three broad occupational groups. Portland wages are closest to the national metro average in the architecture and engineering group, where our wages are 1.5 percent lower. We're 2.3 percent lower in the computer and mathematical occupational group, and 3.2 percent off in the life, physical, and social sciences.

Broken out by individual occupation, Portland STEM workers earn more than the national metro average in 39 occupations and less in 37. (A technical note: Data for some occupations in some major metro areas are suppressed due to confidentiality issues. For example, data for software developers in Seattle are not published since Microsoft likely dominates employment in this occupation. Thus the metro U.S. average wage calculation for this occupation excludes Seattle.)

Among the larger occupations, Portland wages are significantly higher for computer network architects, where workers earn 32.4 percent more; civil engineering technicians (+16.2%); and life, physical, and social science technicians (+12.9%). Wages are below the national metro average for computer programmers (-9.5%); architects (-9.0%); and network and computer systems administrators (-8.0%).

Table 1
Average Annual Wages: Portland Metro and U.S. Metro, 2012
      Portland Metro Area U.S., Metro Portion   Portland-U.S. Metro Difference
      Number Percent
All Occupations $48,750 $46,986   $1,764 3.8%
STEM Occupations $77,206 $78,878   -$1,673 -2.1%
    Computer and Mathematical  $78,900 $80,774   -$1,874 -2.3%
    Architecture and Engineering $78,740 $79,979   -$1,239 -1.5%
    Life, Physical, and Social Science  $67,600 $69,862   -$2,262 -3.2%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics
Table 2
Portland Metro STEM Wages Relative to Metro U.S.: 2012*
    Portland Metro U.S. , Metro Portion Portland  as % of U.S. Metro  Portland Metro Employment   Share of STEM Employment 
Higher Paying Relative to Metro U.S.:          
Computer Network Architects $125,520 $94,815 132.4% 1,060 1.5%
Civil Engineering Technicians $58,680 $50,481 116.2% 780 1.1%
  Life, Physical, & Social Science Techs., All Other $51,790 $45,886 112.9% 950 1.3%
Industrial Engineers $93,390 $83,385 112.0% 3,010 4.2%
Urban and Regional Planners $77,280 $70,154 110.2% 680 0.9%
  Electronics Engineers, Except Computer $104,050 $96,183 108.2% 2,250 3.1%
Lower Paying Relative to Metro U.S.:          
Computer Programmers $70,160 $77,529 90.5% 2,420 3.4%
  Architects, Except Landscape and Naval $71,590 $78,641 91.0% 1,180 1.6%
  Network and Computer Systems Administrators $71,170 $77,335 92.0% 2,680 3.7%
Chemists $71,040 $77,098 92.1% 700 1.0%
  Computer Network Support Specialists $58,820 $63,304 92.9% 1,530 2.1%
Civil Engineers $79,510 $84,512 94.1% 3,230 4.5%
*For occupations employing more than 200 people, and for which most or all major metro areas report data
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics
Compared With Other Major Metro Areas
Compared with the nation's 50 largest metro areas, Portland's average STEM wage is the 18th highest. San Jose has the highest average wage across all STEM occupations at $105,954; nearly $29,000 more than Portland (+37.2%). Washington DC is a distant second ($96,062) followed by San Francisco ($95,498), Houston ($92,898), and Seattle ($88,461).

The lowest-paying metro areas are Buffalo, Nashville, Louisville, Rochester (NY), and Orlando. All of these areas have an average STEM wage between 82 and 86 percent of the national metro average.

The Sky is Not Falling
Average Wage Influenced by a Few Large Metros

Before lamenting the state of Portland wages (relative to the national metro average), there are a few things to keep in mind when comparing one area to another, or to the national average. In the case of STEM jobs, the average metro wage is greatly influenced by just a few areas. San Jose, Washington DC, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, and Boston are among the largest centers of STEM employment in the country, accounting for 20 percent of metro U.S. employment in this sector. They also happen to pay the highest STEM wages. The combination of their size and high pay pulls up the all-metro average and results in the majority of major metro areas falling below average. Thirty-three of the nation's 50 largest metro areas pay less than the national metro STEM average.

If the three highest-paying areas - San Jose, Washington DC, and San Francisco - are taken out of the equation, the average national metro STEM wage drops by over $2,300 to $76,567 (and Portland rises above the average). Removing the three lowest-paying areas has virtually no impact as they are among the smallest STEM centers.

Cost of Living Differences

Another issue to keep in mind when evaluating wages is that the cost of living can vary dramatically between metro areas. While San Jose pays the highest STEM wage among the nation's 50 largest metro areas, it also has the third highest cost of living (as measured by the ACCRA Cost of Living Index compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research). The average sales price of a home is $645,000; almost three times the price in Portland ($232,900). Washington DC and San Francisco, the other top paying metros, have the fourth and second highest cost of living, respectively. In fact, six of the 10 major metro areas with the highest average STEM wages also rank in the top 10 for highest cost of living.

To give a slightly different perspective: it would take 6.1 years to pay the average sales price for a home in San Jose on that area's average STEM wage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the average STEM worker in Detroit could pay for a house in less than a year. Most of the other major metro areas hover around a 2:1 ratio, house price to STEM wage. Portland's moderately high cost of living combined with close-to-average STEM wages creates a scenario where it would take 3 years to pay for a house: better than San Jose, Seattle, Boston, and Denver, but longer than in 37 other major metro areas.

In conclusion, STEM occupations are more prevalent in Portland compared with many other major metro areas. The average Portland STEM wage is lower than the U.S. metro average, but comparisons are not as straightforward as they might appear given the large and unique presence of a few metro areas - especially in the Bay Area - and given differences in the cost of living between metro areas.

Graph 1
Average home price to average STEM wage 50 largest metro areas 2012