Getting African-Americans and Hispanics into the STEM talent pipeline will take a multi-tiered educational and career development effort. It also requires cultural changes in the STEM industries to move towards real inclusiveness.
- By Debra Jenkins
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines are getting a lot of attention because the need for college graduates is growing as the knowledge economy expands its reach across industries. Currently, the statistics indicate the people who are being hired are mostly whites and Asians. Changing the trend to fill the talent pipeline requires more than just hiring African-Americans and Hispanics because the long-term challenges of the industry are embedded in a non-inclusive culture and an educational system that does not offer equal learning and career preparation opportunities. STEM companies need to change their recruitment and retention strategies and invest in K-12 programs that inspire African-American and Hispanic students to take an interest in STEM studies. At the same time, higher education facilities, nonprofits, and corporations must partner to create inclusion initiatives like internships and educational programs that help underrepresented students properly prepare for STEM careers. Topping the entire effort is a need for more inclusive workplace cultures that embrace diversity.
Finding the Qualified Students
There is a myth going around that there are few minorities, other than Asians, who are currently qualified to hold STEM positions. How does one explain places like Howard University, one of the eminent Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCUs), which tried for years to attract Silicon Valley companies to the campus to interview and hire Black engineers with little luck. Howard University has the same problem as other HBCUs – it is not one of the elite science-focused universities, like MIT or Stanford, where the tech companies do much of their recruiting.1
Major STEM companies have cited a lack of qualified Hispanics and African-American job applicants as the primary reason their diversity numbers are so abysmal. Looking at all of the largest tech companies, only 2-6 percent of their workforces are or Hispanics. Yet, top universities are graduating African-American and Hispanics engineering and computer science graduates at twice the rate that technology companies are hiring them. Dr. William Spriggs, Chief Economist at the AFL-CIO researched the facts, and found that more bachelor’s degrees in computer science are awarded to African-Americans than to Asian Americans. Instead of hiring minorities, STEM businesses have been pushing Congress to allow the importation of a higher number of temporary foreign workers for STEM jobs by increasing the number of H-1B visas.2
STEM companies need to change their recruitment strategies and overcome a bias towards the hiring of mostly whites. They need to recruit at HBCUs and Historically Spanish Institutions, setting hiring goals for recruiters and managers that push progress. Overcoming bias is another challenge. Traditionally, tech companies have relied on a candidate profile in which the applicant began doing technical work, like programming while in K-12, participated in science fairs, entered and won programming competitions, and interned while in high school and college, eventually getting a STEM related degree from an elite university. Most minority students choose to study STEM programs in college but had little experience in K-12 with technical curriculums and programs because the opportunities did not exist.
Preparing Students for Careers
At the K-12 schools with high populations of underrepresented students, the issue is lack of STEM curriculums to interest students and lack of critical tools like science and computer labs. At the college level, the challenge is convincing talents and bright African-American and Latina/o students to stay in STEM programs. In both cases, corporations need to partner with nonprofits, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities to develop programs that inspire students and increase their retention in STEM programs. The overriding goal of the K-12 programs that are funded by nonprofits and corporations is to prepare students for college and career progress in STEM disciplines. Engaging young students is the first step towards meeting that goal.
When Intel committed $300 million to improving workforce diversity, $5 million was invested in a five-year scholars program to teach computer science to Oakland Unified School District high school students. The goal is to send 600 high school graduates to college to earn computer science engineering degrees. Of enormous importance is the fact Intel will continue to support the students in college through scholarships and internships, and offer a job upon graduation. The school district was purposefully chosen because it is characterized by a high rate of poverty and violence. Many programs like these are being implemented in K-12 by companies that include Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Dropbox.
The backgrounds of many underrepresented students compared to Ivy League white students are world’s apart. Fully qualified diverse students discover during internships that the mostly white culture of tech companies has a long way to go to be fully inclusive even when African-American and Hispanics are hired. The tech companies must change their cultures, and diverse STEM graduates must learn to work with people who have very different backgrounds. One Black student from Howard University said, upon starting her internship at Google, that she experienced culture shock and had little in common with her white peers, making even lunch conversations difficult. It is challenging to retain diverse talent when they never seem to “fit in.”
Students must also learn more than theories in college. Offering educational opportunities is important, but so is connecting the education to practical applications. When STEM companies participate in K-12 and college programs by partnering with school systems and nonprofits, like The Level Playing Field Institute, students are much more likely to get practical training in things like coding and app development, and to participate in hackathons and other training opportunities. Google Diversity is working with five HBCUs to revamp their Intro to CS curriculum and is embedding engineers as teachers, mentors, and advisors on curriculum.
It is good the conversation on diversity in STEM has begun in earnest. That does not mean there will quick improvement because the challenges to overcome require cultural changes and recognition that bias can quickly stall real progress no matter how much money is invested in programs. A good example is found in the June 2015 Excelencia in Education report that found that Hispanics working in STEM are concentrated in lower-paying jobs and have higher representation in service occupations. There are always stories behind the numbers.
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