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Tae Kim and other students learn computer software for drafting and manufacturing in Mike Appio's manufacturing and CNC technology class at De Anza College in Cupertino Saturday, June 8, 2013. A new report, "The Hidden STEM Economy," reveals that one-third of all jobs in the San Jose area and one-quarter of jobs in San Francisco and East Bay demand skills in the so-called STEM disciplines - but not necessarily a college degree. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

Silicon Valley is world-renowned for the Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur "geniuses" behind theoretical breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and math.

Less well-known are people like Patrick Pickerell, a high school dropout whose $10 million-a-year Pleasanton metal manufacturing company is powered by people with no university credentials but plenty of math and fix-it skills -- ingredients essential to innovation.

A new report, "The Hidden STEM Economy," reveals that a university degree is not required for 27.5 percent of all jobs in the San Jose area in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The number is even higher -- 36 percent -- in San Francisco and the East Bay.

The report urges policymakers to boost funding for training in such careers as toolmaking, technical writing and technician work -- the critical pick-and-shovel brigades in tech's gold rush. Of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on tech-oriented education and training, just one-fifth goes toward training below the bachelor's degree level. National Science Foundation spending largely ignores community colleges, it asserts.

"Jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree represent a hidden and unheralded STEM economy," said Jonathan Rothwell, author of the report by the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to these careers has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways," he said.


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Drawing from high schools, vocational schools and community colleges, these jobs pay annual salaries averaging $73,000 -- less than positions requiring a university degree, but $30,000 a year more than those in fields outside science, technology, engineering and math.

Conventional wisdom holds that high-skilled blue-collar jobs are rapidly disappearing from the U.S. economy -- but the reality is more complex, according to the report.

High-skilled jobs in manufacturing and construction make up an increasingly large share of total employment, as middle-skill jobs in those fields wane, it found.

"There are a lot of STEM jobs out there that the public is not aware of," said Dennis Cima of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "It tells us the importance of pipelines where high school students can engage in these fields, through opportunities that don't require a four-year degree."

The surest way to acquire valuable knowledge is to go to college and get a four-year degree, and even graduate school, Rothwell noted.

This is particularly important in the Bay Area, because of the sophistication of industries here. The analysis found that 72 percent of STEM jobs in the San Jose area and 63 percent in the San Francisco-East Bay region require at least a bachelor's degree, especially in engineering and computer jobs. By comparison, only 50 percent of these jobs in the United States require one.

"But for those who decide not to go to college -- that cost is too high, or whatever -- there are other routes to a decent paying job," Rothwell said.

For instance, technical writing employs thousands of people in well-paying Bay Area jobs, the report found. "You need skills that are specific to whatever their product or service is, to help the customer," said Daniel Doornbos, of San Jose, who writes user manuals for the data storage company Nimble Storage.

Precision machinery offered an onramp to success for Pleasanton's Pickerell. At 17, he learned how to make coiled metal springs. Since then, he has worked in every facet of precision manufacturing -- from sweeping floors to rapid prototyping of tech products. Now he runs Peridot, which specializes in precision manufacturing for industries ranging from Apple to Intuitive Surgical.

"My modern machine facility is chock-full of people making nice, stable incomes with full benefits. It's a career path with honor and stability," he said.

Its employees have "math proficiency, but not advanced math, like calculus," he said. "Kids that are gearheads are excellent candidates ... people who enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together."

The machine operators of the future can be found at De Anza College's Manufacturing/CNC Technology Lab, which teaches youths to run software programs and visualize multidimensional projects using $500,000 machines.

"There was a time when machine operators just pushed buttons. Those are the jobs we've lost -- the simple, cheap, push-button jobs," said Mike Appio, the lab's department head. "Now everything is numbers. You need the ability to keep machines running on five axes spinning at one time."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

Report's findings
What do workers need to know to perform their jobs? A national analysis finds that:
As of 2011, 26 million U.S. jobs -- 20 percent of all jobs -- required a high level of knowledge in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) field.
Half of all these jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average -- 10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.
STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree are clustered in certain metropolitan areas, but sub-bachelor-degree STEM jobs are prevalent in every large metropolitan area. Of large metro areas, San Jose has the most STEM-based economies, but Baton Rouge, La.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Wichita, Kan., have the largest share of STEM jobs in fields that don't require a four-year degree.
Job growth, employment rates, patenting, wages and exports are highest in metropolitan areas with strong STEM-based economies.