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Best Places for STEM Grads

June 2, 2015
Best Places for STEM Grads
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In recent years, STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have become increasingly prominent, both in education and employment.

The National Science Foundation reports that the percentage of freshmen at four-year universities who intend to major in a science or engineering field increased to about 39% in 2012 after remaining stagnant at about 33% from 1995 to 2007.

Growing interest in STEM fields reflects trends in the job market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary in 2014 for occupations in STEM fields was about $81,000, which is 72% higher than the $47,000 average salary for all occupations. As well, the growth in the STEM job market is expected to continue to outpace other sectors: From 2010 to 2020, employment in science and engineering occupations is projected to increase 18.7%, which is higher than the 14.3% estimated rate of growth for all occupations.

Although STEM jobs have experienced significant growth in industry size and wages, certain cities are more attractive to STEM graduates. To find the best places for STEM grads, NerdWallet analyzed the following factors in 354 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas:

Size of the STEM industry. We examined the number of STEM jobs for every 1,000 employees in each metro area with 2014 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Income for STEM jobs. We looked at annual mean salary for STEM jobs in each area. We also analyzed median rent as a cost-of-living metric to see how far the average income goes in each place.

For more career and postgrad information, check out NerdWallet Grad.

Key findings

Computer and mathematical occupations lead the way. Most of the high-ranked places on our list, such as the metro areas around San Jose, Boulder and Seattle, are tech hubs known for their sizable computer-related job markets with occupations such as programmers, developers and network architects. Computer and mathematical occupations are the most prevalent and lucrative of STEM fields — they make up 52% of all STEM jobs and have an average salary $83,970, compared with $81,520 for all engineering and architecture jobs, and $70,070 for all life, physical and social science occupations.

STEM job markets are strongest in coastal states. There are prominent STEM areas throughout the U.S., but the strongest ones are on both coasts — from California and Washington to Florida, North Carolina and farther north.

On the chart below, use the selector to see data about the number of STEM employees in an area, the average salary, median rent in each place and the overall score.


Best places for STEM grads

1. Huntsville, Alabama

Known as Rocket City thanks to its history with space flights and the aerospace industry, Huntsville is the STEM heart of the South. The metro area’s first overall rank on this list is powered by its prominent STEM industry ­and high salary relative to a low cost of living. Huntsville, which also ranked highly in NerdWallet’s Best Places for Engineers and Best Places for Tech Jobs, is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Army Aviation and Missile Command and Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park in the world. The University of Alabama in Huntsville is also a major center for technology research — over half of the school’s graduates earn degrees in engineering or science.

2. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California

The heart of Silicon Valley has been a hub for technology and innovation for years. The San Jose metro area boasts the largest STEM job market in the country, with 185 of every 1,000 occupations belonging to STEM fields. And although the median rent here is the highest of all U.S. metros at $1,640 a month, the average STEM salary of $117,783 is also higher than anywhere else. Major tech giants like Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Intel and Adobe Systems are all headquartered here.

3. Boulder, Colorado

The Boulder metro area features one of the most prominent STEM job markets in the country, thanks to growth in its technology and aerospace industries. About 140 of every 1,000 jobs belong to a STEM occupation. Some of the largest employers in the area include IBM, Oracle and Ball Corp., which also includes Boulder-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies. The University of Colorado Boulder, a large public research university and the largest college in the state, is home to a Center for STEM Learning that focuses on improving STEM education for students and the local community.

4. Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The Durham-Chapel Hill area is home to two powerhouse research universities, Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both are among the most prominent research universities in the nation, so it’s no surprise that the region is also a hub for STEM jobs. Near Raleigh, the area’s Research Triangle Park is one of the world’s largest research parks and home to hundreds of companies as well as other colleges.

5. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, Washington

The job market in the Seattle metro area features 121 STEM employees for 1,000 jobs, making it one of the largest STEM centers in the U.S. Also, the average annual STEM salary in Seattle is among the highest in the nation at $98,493. The region’s largest employers include Microsoft and Amazon, while the Boeing Co. is the major presence in Seattle’s aerospace industry.

6. Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington

Although Seattle gets most of the attention when it comes to tech and innovation in the Northwest, the Tri-Cities, a region about 200 miles inland, is a major research center featuring a powerful STEM workforce. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Battelle Memorial Institute, Energy Northwest and ConAgra Foods are large employers here that hire a number of workers in STEM fields.

7. San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, California

The San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City area north of Silicon Valley shares a lot of similarities with the valley, including the prevalence of tech jobs. The region boasts 108 STEM employees per 1,000 jobs and the second-highest STEM salary of all places (as well as the third-highest cost to rent). Google, Twitter and LinkedIn and the ever-growing number of startup companies regularly hire STEM grads.

8. Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia

The nation’s capital and surrounding metro area are home to about 117 STEM workers for every 1,000 jobs, and these employees make an average salary just shy of six figures. In addition to a plethora of tech companies, the region also boasts initiatives such as the DC STEM Alliance, which provides resources to boost STEM education locally.

9. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, Texas

Houston’s proportion of STEM workers is higher than average and its mean STEM salary of $94,826 is boosted by a relatively low median rent and cost of living. Booming industries in the region include aerospace, energy, biotechnology and life sciences, with ExxonMobil and Shell Oil Co. among its top employers. The University of Houston features a STEM Center that focuses on attracting students to STEM careers at a local and national level.

10. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida

This Florida metro area earns its spot on our list thanks to a sizable STEM industry (89 STEM employees for every 1,000 jobs) and a low cost of living (median rent is just $876). The region boasts a high concentration of tech workers due to the prevalence of defense, aerospace and technology companies.


Best places for STEM grads data



Here’s how we calculated the score for each of the 354 largest U.S. metro areas:

  1. STEM employees per 1,000 total jobs are 50% of the score. Data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2014 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.
  2. Annual mean wage for STEM jobs is 25% of the score. Data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2014 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.
  3. Median gross rent for each place is 25% of the score. Data are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey.

This study analyzes data for all jobs classified as computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations or life, physical and social science occupations.

Huntsville, Alabama, image via iStock.