At a time when 6.7 percent unemployment (or, 11.9 percent among African Americans) is an improvement, the STEM sector still has more available jobs than qualified American professionals. And according to a study released last week, the United States’ will halt its economic success unless the racial gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is addressed.
The report, STEM Urgency: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education in an Increasingly Unequal and Competitive World, examines the inadequacy of STEM education, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, and how that inadequacy impacts U.S. economic power. The paper is presented by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank dedicated to research and policy analysis on issues affecting African Americans and other people of color.
The Joint Center also convened a panel last week to introduce the paper and discuss its findings.
According to the report, just 17 percent of degreed and employed Black professionals hold a STEM degree. In the field itself, African Americans make up just 3.9 percent of the ranks of all science and engineering occupations. White STEM professionals hold 71.8 percent of these jobs.
"While these trends are troubling for the nation overall, a disproportionate number of people of color—particularly African Americans and Hispanics—are even further away from becoming STEM-literate and having the ability to thrive in a hyper-competitive, global marketplace," the report states. "Closing the gap in college graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics could add a significant number of people to the workforce able to do jobs that require advanced skills and are in high-growth areas of the economy."
Once the global pinnacle of innovation, the United States now ranks 47th in math and science education quality, according to the World Economic Forum. This dearth in quality STEM education and professional training has resulted in a few widespread problems.
For starters, students of color (excluding Asians)—even those who have the interest in and access to STEM training—tend to be discouraged from continuing their studies. The report points to a 2012 White House council study, which found that high-performing students consider available coursework "uninspiring." It also found that 40 percent of the 1,226 female, African American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers surveyed had had a teacher or employer discourage them at some point.
This discouragement is reflected in higher education. According to the report, if the proportion of Black and Hispanic students who earned science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2010 had been raised to the same rate as Asian science and engineering grads, 48,000 more graduates would have entered the STEM field that year alone.
Additionally, the gaps in STEM education also have implications on employment. The national unemployment rate has been above five percent since the recession, peaking at 10.2 percent in 2009—or nearly 16 percent for African Americans. Meanwhile, jobs that depend on STEM skills will grow 17 percent in the next four years.
As the study explains, "Individuals and families left behind might earn their way to better standards of living—but only if they have the skills to compete in a global economy. That is the opportunity STEM presents, in that STEM education gives people the wherewithal for employment in jobs that pay well."
For this reason, Joseph Miller, co-author of the study and deputy director and senior policy counsel of the Joint Center’s Media and Technology Institute, believes adults already in the workforce also need access to STEM training.
"We need to talk about K-12 education and those investments have to be made, but we also need to put an eye toward lifelong learning," he says. "We are culturally pessimistic about the versatility of the American worker."
That idea may be reflected in the influx of foreign-born skilled workers. Tech companies have had such trouble filling their ranks that they routinely hire via "temporary workers in specialty occupation" (H-1B) visas. According to the study, more than a third (35.6 percent) of all foreign-born Americans aged 25 and older with a science and/or engineering degree were born in India, China, or the Philippines. Also, the Obama Administration is currently seeking to strengthen the nation’s ability to attract overseas talent through administrative reforms in the Department of Homeland Security.
In short, African Americans and Latinos represent a large pool of American potential talent that isn’t being developed. And with changing demographics—the Census predicts that the nation will be majority-minority by 2043—this underdevelopment will continue to hinder the nation’s ability to compete globally.
"We’re talking about the implications on the future of our country," Miller says. "We’re talking about building infrastructure, we’re talking about cybersecurity; we need Americans working on these things. And if we’re not investing in the communities that are going to be the majority, it’s foolhardy of us."
The study shies away from making specific recommendations, but does state that possible solutions will require public-private partnerships and investments. The authors hope their research will also be used to create effective legislation.
"It’s a complicated problem, but it’s complicated not because we don’t know what works." Miller explains. "It’s complicated for political reasons. We wish we had all the answers, but research will shed light on how policy should be designed."