The Huffington Post recently reported a story about the declining numbers of blacks working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Overall, the numbers of workers in STEM fields is declining, but black Americans’ numbers are shrinking to very low percentages. The article cites a number of factors that may explain this, including but not limited to a lack of role confidence (a factor that sociologist Erin Cech and her colleagues also note affects women in STEM fields as well), economic and financial considerations, and a lack of role models and social support in the field.
It is important to introduce diversity (racial as well as gendered) into STEM fields for several reasons. One, minority engineers may, by virtue of their experiences, be motivated to ask questions or pursue areas of research that are borne out of or can contribute to eradicating racial inequities. Two, as the article notes, the access to and visibility of minority role models can be integral to helping young engineering students of color succeed. Third, as the United States becomes increasingly racially diverse, it is important to tap into all sectors of our population to build a strong and educationally prepared workforce.
Many recent news reports have noted that the ongoing unemployment problem, though problematic nationally, has reached crisis levels in black communities. The national unemployment rate is 9%, but in black communities it is closer to 17%. Yet among college graduates, unemployment, while still high, is closer to 5%, suggesting that higher education still puts students in a position to reap greater occupational and economic rewards than students without a college degree. This article thus points to a need to emphasize factors like job training, outreach, education, and other tactics as ways to connect black Americans to this important field that still has demand for skilled workers.