London: For those trained in law, social sciences and the arts, I have some bad news: the best days may be over because the future belongs to scientists, engineers and mathematicians. In high school and university classrooms across the US, a quiet revolution is underway as students adapt to a difficult job market by choosing more quantitative disciplines.

Nearly all the highest-paid jobs in the US require training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) disciplines. More than 30 of the 50 best-paid occupations in the United States require graduate or postgraduate training in Stem subjects, including medical sciences, according to pay data collected by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics as part of its annual survey of Occupational Employment and Wages.

In response, annual enrolments in undergraduate Stem programmes have jumped by almost 700,000 (23 per cent) between 2003 and 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the US Department of Education.

More than 3.7 million students enrolled in undergraduate courses that can be loosely classed as Stem programmes in 2011, up from 3 million in 2003, according to the 2013 edition of the Department’s Digest of Educational Statistics. Enrolments in Stem disciplines have been growing much faster than for undergraduate programmes as a whole, which rose by just 5 per cent over the same period.

In fact, increased enrolments in Stem accounted for more than more than half of the total increase in university enrolments over the eight years between 2003 and 2011. Pay incentives as well as the associated professional prestige are steering students towards the highly numerate training needed to be financially successful in an economy dominated by computers, data analysis, engineering and complex technology.

North America’s oil and gas boom is just one example of how financial incentives are shaping the educational choices of a new generation. Average earnings for qualified petroleum engineers shot up from $87,000 (Dh319,559) in 2003 to $149,000 in 2011, a 70 per cent increase, at a time when earnings across the whole economy have been struggling to keep pace with inflation.

Enrolments in graduate petroleum engineering programmes have soared from 561 in 1997 and 849 in 2003 to 1,301 in 2011. But the shift is not confined to oil and gas. Enrolments in all engineering sciences reached 146,000 in 2011, up from 120,000 in 2003 and 100,000 in 1997.

Earnings have escalated across a wide range of Stem-related occupations in the last decade. Average pay for mathematicians rose 34 per cent between 2003 and 2013. Pay for operations research analysts was up 32 per cent. Statisticians saw their average earnings rise 34 per cent. There were also better-than-average increases for materials engineers (39 per cent), aerospace engineers (39 per cent) and naval architects (31 per cent).

By contrast, average earnings for all occupations rose just 25 per cent. To keep pace with inflation, workers needed to earn about 27 per cent more in 2013 than in 2003. So on average pay fell in real terms. Any occupation that achieved average pay rises of less than 27 per cent actually saw its real earning power fall.

Lawyers, a literate discipline, experienced a smaller-than-average and below-inflation increase in average earnings of 22 per cent, while economists, another high status but more quantitative discipline, saw their average earnings increase just over 30 per cent.

The broad category of “arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media” occupations, which includes journalists, received an average raise of about 26 per cent. But reporters did worse than average, with pay rising just 21 per cent, behind inflation, while public relations specialists did better on 31 per cent.

Declining competitiveness

For years, US politicians and educators have worried about the declining competitiveness of the economy and the rise of rivals especially in Asia.

Much of that concern was based on the increasing number of engineers and scientists being produced by universities in China and across the developing world (before that the same concerns were expressed about Japan in the 1970s and 1980s).

In 2007, the prestigious National Research Council, an umbrella group for the US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, published an alarming report entitled Rising above the gathering storm: energising and employing America for a brighter economic future. “[We are] deeply concerned that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength,” it warned.

“We are worried about the future prosperity of the United States,” the report observed pessimistically. “Although many people assume the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology that may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world.”

Among its recommendations, the council wanted more high-school maths and science teachers, an “enlarged pipeline of students” ready to study Stem subjects at college, and an “increase [in] the number and proportion of US citizens who earn bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering and mathematics.” The National Research Council wanted the federal government to play a key role by recruiting more teachers, providing more scholarships and paying for more research and development.

But the market is already well on the way to correcting the problem on its own. Stem subjects promise higher pay, greater opportunities, and more job security. Prospective students are responding by altering their educational and career choices accordingly.

Over the next 10 years, the relatively high pay and status afforded to scientists, engineers and mathematicians will continue to attract students towards studying these subjects and strengthen the “knowledge base” politicians, educators and commentators worry about so much.

In the next decade, the real division will not be between the US and its rivals overseas, but between those who have Stem training and those who do not.