Community / Special News

Here a Job, There A Job, Everywhere a STEM Job


BY SORILBRAN BUCKNER

Pick up most any business magazines and invariably there will be multiple articles and regular features dedicated to science and technology. The Information Age is most certainly in full swing and with the near rock star status of icons like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (who, at this point in recent tech history, are starting to feel a bit like old money) innovations in science and technology have emerged asbona fide methods for grabbing attention, quickly ascending the social ladder, and even cashing in on savvy business ideas.

Colleges and universities continue acquiring land and building research and technology parks like Wayne State University’s Tech Town in Midtown Detroit. Free training, mentoring, and business incubator programs to nurture and support tech-based ventures are cropping up on campuses like Georgia Tech. Since its start in 2007 in Boulder, CO, Startup Weekend has shown up in 35 cities all over the world and provided 25,000 entrepreneurs, many of them conceptualizing would-be tech companies, the opportunity to pitch their idea, get help developing a written plan and perhaps even sell their ideas all in one weekend.

There is plenty of opportunity and, at first glance, no shortage of talent and the opportunities are not limited to tech geeks and their start-ups.

Stephen Hinton knows a thing or two about the science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM) fields. As the Managing Director of Metro Atlanta-based Hinton Human Capital and a seasoned recruiter with thirteen years of experience in finding and placing STEM professionals, Hinton has gained a pretty solid understanding of what it takes to fill a job opening with well-educated, experienced talent. Youthful, sharp and easy to talk to, his knowledge of STEM recruiting sort of wafts into the conversation – the more interested you are, the more willing he is to share the seemingly boundless insight he’s garnered in the field in which he’s become an expert.

“The opportunities for growth in STEM work are going to be tremendous over the next, probably thirty to fifty years,” Hinton says then adds, “depending on economic factors and the availability of funding.”

One would think with the national unemployment rate holding firm at just below 9%, and the buzz in the news about the extension of (and subsequent reduction of) unemployment benefits, there would not be a position left vacant, but that simply is not the case. For Hinton, whose company provides talent for green, infrastructure and environmental positions that his clients find difficult to fill, securing a suitable candidate often is just that – difficult. “Are there opportunities in the STEM fields for great growth? Absolutely!” Hinton says. “And the opportunities for African Americans in the STEM community are outstanding and will be for some time.”

Outstanding in part because according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job market for STEM professionals is projected to grow much faster than the average for all other occupations. Of the 15 million jobs expected to be added to the labor market between 2008 and 2018, about 4 million (approximately 27%) will be in the Health Services sector (inclusive of medical doctors, dentists, social sciences, and nursing care) while another 2.7 million (18%) will be from the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sector.

Fabulous! Let’s all go to work – plenty of jobs, plenty of people. U.S.A.!

There’s just one problem – finding an employable workforce.

While 84% of Americans polled have a positive reaction to science and technology – that is, they have a basic appreciation for research and innovation as well as a general confidence in the science community leadership – America is not presently producing enough STEM professionals to meet current or future needs of the science and technology labor market.And Hinton will agree, indicating that he regularly has job openings that he simply cannot fill.

Add diversity to the mix and we’ve got ourselves a challenge indeed. The gap between the number of African American STEM professionals and their white or Asian counterparts seems to be widening, an issue which urgently needs to be addressed both on a national scale and at a community level in order for the U.S. to remain competitive on a global level.

The Disconnect

There exists, in the African American community, a widespread disconnect with regard to the STEM fields. Not only do African American communities tend to be undeserved as far as the availability of STEM-based educational programs, but because of the perceived lack of interest in science and math fields from African Americans, available programs are often under-utilized. It becomes a vicious cycle. There’s the old adage, “People would do better if they knew better.” In this case, that is one hundred percent true. “Exposure is an issue for women and minorities,” says Dr. Juan Gilbert, IDEaS Professor and Chair of Human-Centered Computing, School of Computing, Clemson University. “There’s this idea [in our community] that STEM disciplines [involve] working with artifacts and phenomena and not people.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the mission of the Human-Centered Computing Division is to design solutions for real world problems then field test the design using real people. Prime III, an electronic voting system designed by Dr. Gilbert and his team, allows users to vote by touch or by voice. In a real world context, Prime III would afford a blind person or individual without limbs the same privacy and discretion able-bodied citizens typically enjoy when casting their votes.

There still exists a stigma within the African American community that serves to socially restrict what black folks can and cannot, will and will not, should and should not do. Unfortunately,such thinking infects the minds of many African Americans (and subsequently the minds of their children) and serves as a seemingly insurmountable barrier to cultivating a better understanding of, and love for,science and math. Stephen Hinton is particularly passionate about the topic and makes a flooring statement:

“The greatest enemy to diversity in STEM is black people. It’s us. Before we can make advances in the STEM fields, educationally [or professionally], we have to deal with the ghosts of the past – the ones in our communities that say ‘you should not do that’ and ‘you can’t do that’ because [that kind of thinking is] still prevalent in our community today. Our ancestors were pyramid builders and artisans… somehow, we’ve forgotten that!”

Shifting the focus

Very often it’s the case that African American students are more likely to pursue teaching or social sciences with the intention of building a career around doing work that is meaningful and touches the lives of others. The idea of ‘giving back’ is a concept that’s been ingrained from childhood so the tendency is to look for work that more obviously reflects that value. Well-meaning as it is, even that can be a bit of a barrier. Often times when students can see the areas wherein STEM disciplines benefit society, it opens the door for them to more seriously consider a STEM profession.

Diversity has become a necessity in the job market for the opportunity it provides companies to leverage the talents and unique skills of employees who come from different backgrounds. Such collaborative efforts at team building frequently result in creative problem solving and increased productivity. The absence of African Americans in the STEM fields is being felt.

Adriana Quevedo, U.S. Diversity Manager for Intel Corporation, asserts that part of her job is to “develop the recruiting and hiring strategies to increase minority representation throughout US Intel sites” as well as “examine current company infrastructure and future directions of diversity recruiting efforts to identify areas in need of increased diversity representation within company.” For her, the disparity between recruiting African American talent and white talent is significant, particularly as it relates to software engineering and niche skills.

In 2006, underrepresented minorities (URMs) including African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans represented almost 30% of the population, but accounted for only 9% of the U.S. science and engineering labor force. In his www.sciencemag.org editorial, “Boosting Minorities in Science,” Freeman Hrabowski, President of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at University of Maryland Baltimore County, noted that in the U.S., only 2-3% of all 24 year-old URMs hold an undergraduate degree in STEM disciplines, a far cry from the 10% benchmark the U.S. strives to achieve in order to remain competitive as a nation. The Survey of American Freshmen reports that 32% of African American freshmen intend to pursue a STEM discipline. Of those that do, only about 20% actually graduate with a STEM degree. Increasing the success of African Americans in the STEM disciplines requires a concerted effort on the part of government and schools to provide more consistent financial, academic and social support for students. Programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) have successfully addressed those three common vulnerabilities by providing an almost fail-proof setting in which African American STEM professionals can be strengthened, edified, educated and properly socialized. The program is designed to build African American scholars who are future STEM leaders, researchers and educators.

With diversity being a non-negotiable necessity going forward, pedigree is used to identify the best and brightest STEM talent. As Dr. Gilbert says, “If you come out with a Ph.D. from an elite program, you have very little to do and you don’t have to prove anything. People assume that because you went there, you’re as good as gold so that helps.” A recruiter would be hard-pressed to find an African American if he’s combing the Ivy Leagues for STEM talent, but the chances are slim that any recruiter will be searching solely within the halls of Ivy League schools.

Factors to consider

Baby Boomers play a significant role in the U.S. labor force. A substantial portion of them were expected to have retired by now, but with the market crash of 2008, many did not. Fact is,over the coming years a large number of Baby Boomers will begin exiting the workforce and upper management positions will suddenly be open. “The economy opens from the top down,” says Hinton, an interesting point suggesting that until the positions left by the Boomers are filled, lower positions for technicians, laborers, and administrative will also go unfilled. The concern is whether there will be educated talent ready to take on positions as the new industry leadership.

Employment of environmental scientists is expected to increase by 28% between 2008 and 2018, particularly with consulting firms, as demand will be driven by an increase in the population and continued environmental degradation. Compliance will be a serious issue for most businesses. Companies like Coca-Cola and IBM are already making strategic efforts in water management as the business world braces for coming water shortages.

Dr. Gilbert thinks that tech recruiting will intensify as an industry that is already an international job market will see an increase in competition beyond the borders. Computing is predicted to be the number one market for jobs. “There will be a lot of competition for those jobs, but there will be a lot of them,” says Gilbert. In fact, Intel Corporation is changing its strategy, culture and behavior as it shifts from a platform company to a computing solutions provider.

Hinton is confident and optimistic when he adds, “If we can encourage more of our people to get involved in these fields now, there will be jobs for them. [It’s about] getting the word out and getting people involved.”