Migration of Workers Affects Supply of Scientists and Engineers in U.S.

With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, PRB launched a new project in 2005 to investigate the characteristics of scientists and engineers (S&E) in the United States. PRB is developing state-level profiles of the S&E workforce based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. These profiles will provide periodic estimates of the numbers of persons in S&E occupations at the national and state levels, and for important population subgroups such as immigrants.

(February 2007) States increasingly consider science and technology resources to be an asset in developing a strong economic advantage. As a result, strategies for training, attracting and retaining scientists and engineers have become more important state and national public policy issues.1

One important factor in altering a state’s labor supply across all occupation groups is migration. One study found that between 8 percent and 15 percent of workers in each major occupation group moved from one state to another during a recent five-year period.2

For workers in science and engineering occupations, according to a PRB analysis, migration plays a more important role than for other employees. Unpublished estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicate that 3.5 percent of the science and engineering workforce moved to a new state between 2003 and 2004. That is a slightly higher proportion than among other civilian occupations. Science and engineering workers also were 50 percent more likely to immigrate to a state from outside the United States than were other civilian workers, although these moves are relatively rare.

Some science and engineering workers are more mobile than others. About 5 percent of life scientists and 4 percent of physicists changed states between 2003 and 2004, making them the most mobile. About 2 percent of each had arrived from another country that same year.

Some States Gain Scientists and Engineers, While Others Lose Them

In the interchange of scientists and engineers, some states are enlarging or maintaining their labor supply of these valued workers, and others are not.

In a few states, employment mobility is quite high. If arrivals from abroad are included, about one in every nine scientists and engineers in Idaho had arrived the previous year. In Nevada, about 1 in 11 did. The figure was even higher–one in seven–in the District of Columbia, where the employment of scientists and engineers in the government is more concentrated than in other areas of the country.

Some states have a less mobile population of scientists and engineers. Only about 2 percent of science and engineering workers in California, Maine, New York, North Dakota, and Wisconsin had moved recently from other states.

A key measure of whether a state is attractive to scientists and engineers is the extent to which in-migration exceeds out-migration, or vice versa. The table below displays turnover ratios for 10 states that ranked highest on a 2004 science and technology index measuring the sector’s vibrancy. (The turnover ratio is calculated as the number of scientists and engineers moving in from other states per 100 who left.) Seven of the 10 states have ratios above 100, indicating that more moved in during 2003-2004 than moved out. Three are below 100, indicating the reverse.

Interstate Migration of Scientists and Engineers in Top Ranking Technology States

Science and Technology 2004 Ranking Gross in-migration rate (per 100) Gross out-migration rate (per 100) Turnover ratio (in-migrants/ out-migrants (x 100)
1. Massachusetts 2.75 4.46 63
2. California 2.08 2.9 72
3. Colorado 3.33 2.5 133
4. Maryland 4.91 3.0 164
5. Virginia 4.46 3.08 145
6. Washington 4.72 3.39 139
7. New Jersey 4.21 2.6 162
8. Minnesota 2.68 2.03 132
9. Utah 3.41 3.87 88
10. Connecticut 3.33 2.5 134

Sources: PRB analysis of 2004 American Community Survey; and Milken Institute Science and Technology Index, 2004.

In general, southern and western states had substantially higher numbers of incoming than outgoing scientists and engineers, and northeastern states were more likely to experience a net loss. These regional patterns mirror migration trends for the U.S. population overall.3

Among northeastern states, all except New Jersey and Connecticut lost more scientists and engineers than they gained between 2003 and 2004. This outflow may be due in part to the high concentration of educational institutions in those states.4 Education of scientists and engineers, particularly at the graduate levels, tends to be concentrated in select metro regions, and people disperse to other areas of the United States after gaining their degrees.

Midwestern states have followed a similar pattern in the past. While they educated more than a quarter of the doctoral graduates who took jobs in the top 200 research and development companies, they employed less than one-fifth of those graduates.8 However, those states still maintained a higher percentage of U.S.-born scientists and engineers than did other states.

According to recent research, most recent science and engineering graduates expect to work in a state other than the one in which they earned a degree.6 Many doctoral degree recipients return to states in which they were born or went to high school or college. Slightly more than a third of the recipients of bachelor’s or master’s degrees in science and engineering changed their state of residence between the time they gained their degree and accepted postgraduate employment.

Age, Industry, and Economic Conditions Also Affect Migration

A state’s net gains or losses may be influenced by its concentration of educational institutions, but other factors also affect interstate migration flows. They include the age makeup of the scientific workforce, their distribution across industries, and state economic conditions.

Workers in their 30s are more likely to move than those in their 40s or 50s, potentially increasing migration in states with more young workers.7 States with concentrations of workers in high-demand, high technology occupations also may experience greater movement. Workers may be attracted to states with robust economies, and pushed out of weaker areas.

Among states with good economies and relatively high concentrations of workers in science and technology industries, Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia gained substantially more than they lost of these workers. But both California and Massachusetts, also leading technology states, had about one-third fewer scientists and engineers moving in than moving out.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001, coupled with high housing prices, may have contributed to California’s loss of science and engineering workers.8 In 2004, scientific workers left California for 38 other states. Those moving in were likely to live nearby already: 43 percent entered from Oregon, Texas, or Washington.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, just over half of scientists relocated to the state from other East Coast states–Florida, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania. Scientists who left Massachusetts between 2003 and 2004 were less widely dispersed across the United States than those who left California. Nevertheless, as many scientists leaving Massachusetts went to California and Texas as went to other northeastern states such as New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Although they lag behind in factors that encourage technology-based businesses, Indiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina all have more than twice as many arriving scientists and engineers as departing ones. Mississippi and South Carolina benefit from having transportation-manufacturing industries that are less susceptible to downturns in the high-tech sector.9 Low energy prices, low interest rates, and rising housing prices early in the decade also helped the automobile industry hold its own during the economic recession. Employees also may have been attracted by warm weather, the tourism industry, and lower housing costs than in the Northeast.

The employment outlook in Indiana was considerably better than in the neighboring states of Illinois and Kentucky from 2000 to 2004.10 Indiana experienced fewer months of labor market recession. So it’s not surprising that Indiana gained more than twice as many scientists and engineers from Illinois and Indiana than it lost to those states between 2003 and 2004. Nearly half of the scientists and engineers that moved to Indiana during that period–46 percent–came from California and Illinois.

Although states with large scientific workforces may have an advantage, this analysis suggests they are susceptible to losing those assets during economic hard times. Having regional economies where the scientific workforce in neighboring states is concentrated in different industries can help mitigate the effect of business cycles on the science and engineering supply.


  1. Alan Sanderson and Bernard Bugoni, “Interstate Migration Patterns of Recent Science and Engineering Doctorate Recipients,” InfoBrief NSF02-311 (February 2002), accessed online at, on July 17 2006; Office of Technology Policy,The Dynamics of Technology-based Economic Development: State Science and Technology Indicators, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: The Technology Administration, 2004), accessed online at, on July 17, 2006; and Paula E. Stephan et al., “Doctoral Education and Economic Development: The Flow of New Ph.D.s to Industry,” Economic Development Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2004): 151-67.
  2. Stuart Sweeney and Harvey Goldstein, “Accounting for Migration in Regional Occupational Employment Projections,”The Annals of Regional Science 39, no. 2 (2005): 297-316.
  3. Marc Perry, “Domestic Net-Migration in the United States: 2000 to 2004,” Current Population Reports P25-1135 (April 2006).
  4. Sweeney and Goldstein, “Accounting for Migration in regional Occupational Employment Projections”; and National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, 2 volumes (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2006).
  5. Stephan et al., “Doctoral Education and Economic Development.”
  6. Sanderson and Bugoni, “Interstate Migration Patterns of Recent Science and Engineering Doctorate Recipients”; and Basmat Parsad and Lucinda Gray, “Interstate Migration Patterns of Recent Recipients of Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Science and Engineering,” InfoBrief NSF02-311 (August 2005), accessed online at, on July 17 2006.
  7. PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, “Table 9: General Mobility of Employed Civilians 16 Years and Over, by Sex, Age, and Major Occupation Group: 2004,” accessed online at, on Sept. 6 2006.
  8. Anthony Downs, “Does California Have a Rational Housing Policy?” paper presented at the 28th Annual Real Estate and Economics Symposium sponsored by Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, University of California-Berkeley, San Francisco, Nov. 17, 2005.
  9. Marianne Hill, “Mississippi Economic Outlook: Gaining Ground,”Mississippi Economic Review and Outlook 18, no. 2 (2004): 11-18.
  10. Michael T. Owyang, Jeremy M. Piger, and Howard J. Wall, “The 2001 Recession and the States of the Eighth Federal Reserve District,” The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Regional Economic Development 1, no. 1 (2005): 3-16; and Howard J. Wall, “Official Dates for Business Cycles: Don’t Capture the Ups and Downs,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Regional Economist (Oct. 1, 2005).