Since the early part of the 21st century, American institutions of higher learning have been working to increase the number or women and minorities educated in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. America’s workforce is aging, and data shows that skilled workers in STEM fields are already in short supply. For example, about half of the workforce in engineering and advanced manufacturing is nearing retirement age, according to US News & World Report. And the number of younger workers available to replace them is not keeping up. In fact, since 2001, the number of workers under the age of 25 in all fields has increased by 1 percent, while the number of engineering and computer workers (the two most in-demand STEM fields) has decreased by 25 and 15 percent respectively.
What’s more, college-bound high school students have shown a dramatic decrease in interest in STEM cirruculum since 2009. Despite all efforts to encourage participation, interest levels are now about the same as they were in 2000. And while interest among women and Native Americans is slightly higher, black and Latinx youth have demonstrated a drastic decrease in interest in STEM, to levels far below what they were a decade ago.
STEM Employment Trends Flat for Women and Minorities
And this is not because STEM jobs aren’t available. In fact, according to a study by the New American Economy Research Fund, there were roughly 3 million more STEM jobs in 2016 than skilled workers to fill them. And unemployment in STEM fields is incredibly low, at 2.7 percent. Thus, it would seem reasonable to think that women and minorities would be turning to STEM careers in droves.
But they’re not. In fact, white and Asian Americans still dominate the STEM workforce by a huge margin. They held 87 percent of engineering jobs; 84 percent of computing jobs; and 83 percent of advanced manufacturing jobs as of 2014 despite the fact that their total workforce participation had declined 5 percent over the preceding 13 years. By contrast, African American and Latino workers made up 29 percent of the general workforce, but just 16 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15 percent of the computing workforce, and 12 percent of the engineering workforce in 2014.
The number of female workers in the STEM fields has also been flat. According to the data, women’s participation in the engineering, computing and advanced manufacturing fields has not changed (or has dipped slightly) since 2001.
Why Efforts Have Failed
There are, as is always the case, several schools of thought as to why the nation’s efforts to recruit young people of color and women (and especially women of color) into STEM careers have fallen flat. One theory is simple lack of access. High school students in disadvantaged communities are less likely to have access to the kinds of advanced science and math courses that generate excitement around STEM careers. Advanced placement classes, which help position students for college success, may also be unavailable or too intimidating for students whose education has been limited by marginalization and lack of opportunity.
“I believe the dialogue often…does not take place…”said Sandra Evers-Manly, vice president of global corporate responsibility at Northrup Grumman at a roundtable discussion in 2015. “Until we change the dialogue and the engagement of where it’s happening…we’re going to continue to have a problem,” she said.
STEM culture, with it’s heavy emphasis on academics and scientific inquiry, may aso play a part in discouraging women and minorities from participating or succeeding in STEM fields, says Kimberly A. Griffin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland. People of color and women often have very different values and priorities than those enshrined in the STEM world, and they may feel further marginalized as a result. Providing more opportunities for inclusion, such as shared research projects, mentoring programs and one-on-one learning experiences, might help alleviate some of this, she says.
Whatever the reasons, our nation needs to do better at recruiting and retaining talented young people for STEM careers if we want to compete successfully in the global marketplace. Developing strategic initiatives to promote diversity and encourage women and young men of color to enter the STEM fields needs to be an integral part of the plan.
About the Carmoon Group
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