Commentary: The NSA leaker and Highly Skilled but Academically Ordinary Workers

There's an underground high-tech economy.

Booz Allen Hamilton has released a new statement on Edward Snowden, its now-former employee and National Security Agency surveillance leaker. In addition to saying it fired Snowden yesterday over code-of-ethics violations, Booz Allen reports that the Maryland native's annual salary was $122,000—far less than the $200,000 Snowden himself claimed to be making.

That's still a lot of money, particularly for someone who reportedly never graduated from high school. 

But the reality is, Snowden is part of a larger economy that tech companies and members of Congress ignore when they discuss high-skilled jobs and immigration. As more of the broader economy moves toward an IT-reliant future, many of the job market's more mundane openings are also falling into the science, technology, math, and engineering categories. You no longer have to be an academic genius to work in STEM fields, if that were ever the case; people like Snowden are evidence that an ability to do the job often trumps a shiny degree. College graduates, Ph.D.s, and patent-seekers inspire the mind with stories of entrepreneurship and innovation. Yet for every one of those supposed geniuses, new research finds, there is another STEM-related job that doesn't call for a bachelor's degree.

Fifty percent of all such jobs in the United States call for an associate's degree or less, according to a report yesterday by the Brookings Institution. What we think of as traditional STEM workers include people like nuclear engineers and biochemists. But also falling into that category are auto technicians, who are increasingly working on sophisticated automotive computer systems; registered nurses, who will be the first to feel the effects of a coming health-IT revolution; and, yes, computer-systems analysts—such as Snowden.

TheU.S. employs nearly 488,000 computer analysts, who make an average of $82,320 a year. In Hawaii, where Snowden spent his final months before fleeing to Hong Kong, noncollege graduates accounted for 49 percent of the STEM workforce. That figure drops to 30 percent for the Washington metropolitan area, which attracts academically qualified talent to a greater extent. 

Congress has mostly referred to "high-skilled immigration" as a synonym for "tech-savvy degree-holders." But if this Brookings report is accurate, our use of academic achievement as a proxy for skills may be off the mark. It's becoming increasingly common to work a high-skilled job and not boast a degree from MIT.