Moving the Numbers

What must be done to prepare African Americans for opportunities in STEM fields

There is another major barrier for students: money. Because it can take up to five or six years to complete a bachelor’s degree in STEM studies, the extended college program may be too costly for some. There is also the perception for minority students that entry-level positions in law and business offer better financial rewards. However, STEM industries actually offer higher starting salaries than non-STEM fields and will provide sustainable opportunities for career growth in the future.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment in science and engineering is expected to grow 70% faster than the overall growth for all occupations. However, Bayer Corp.’s 13th science education survey, conducted in 2008, found that out of 100 STEM executives surveyed, 80% report that their companies face challenges hiring adequate numbers of women and minorities for STEM positions. The executives attribute this problem to the limited number of qualified applicants for these positions; difficulty in identifying, locating, and recruiting qualified candidates; and trouble attracting candidates due to the company’s location.

Unfortunately for black students currently pursuing science and math careers, old issues that continue to challenge diversity in the workplace can derail candidates as they pursue these opportunities. Mabel Jones Matthews, Ph.D., manager of the higher education outcome program for NASA, says the problem for recent graduates is that while they may have the right academic credentials, they are still not being selected by top organizations. “Often the high-performing minority student graduates with the needed degree but does not have a network of advocates nor relationships within top STEM organizations,” says Matthews. “I think developing these relationships through mentorship and internship opportunities will improve the selection decisions on this talent pool. The challenge lies in having top STEM organizations value the importance of advocating for African American high-performing STEM students.”

According to the Bayer Corp. survey, 71% of STEM executives reported having specific programs in place to recruit women and minority STEM workers, as opposed to only 18% of emerging STEM companies that claim to have similar programs. Among the executives with programs in place, 58% say they recruit from historically black colleges and universities or the Seven Sister schools (seven liberal arts women’s colleges in the Northeast U.S.). Companies that recruit minorities include Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Google, IBM, ExxonMobil, General Electric, and oil and pharmaceutical organizations.

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