Workforce of the Future

Hispanics now make up over 16 percent of the U.S. population and continue to be the youngest and fastest-growing segment of it. Between 2010 and 2020 Hispanics will account for 74 percent of the growth of the workforce, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center report. Clearly the vitality of the American economy depends heavily on the Hispanic talent pool..

President Obama has set before us the goal of making the U.S. first in the world in college degree attainment by 2020 and others in the education and foundation worlds have taken up this challenge. Once again Hispanics provide a key pool of potential college grads. Two reasons make this educational talent pool of critical importance. First, Latinos make up an increasingly larger share of the younger population: 18 percent of the 18-year-olds in the nation and 25 percent of the 4-year-olds! Second, they continue to lag in college-going rates: only 59 percent of Hispanic high school grads 16-24 were enrolled in college compared to 71 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

So there’s going to be more and more Hispanics in the K-12 pipeline and we have a lot of room for growth in college attendance rates. The President’s education goal can’t be achieved without a dramatic increase in degrees for Hispanic Americans.

These workforce needs and educational goals intersect in science and engineering careers. In these STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, college degrees are critical. And because science and engineering are the drivers of innovation and economic progress today, the United States can’t afford an undersupply of talent in these jobs. Too often we’ve had to rely on imported talent, students coming from abroad to study at U.S. universities, especially in graduate STEM programs, to meet our workforce requirements in these areas.

Now there’s nothing wrong with importing talent to meet our needs. The U.S. has done this since its founding, as have many of the industrialized nations at key moments of their economic history. We have only to think of Albert Einstein and other scientists coming to the U.S. from Nazi Germany to realize how valuable this influx of talent can be. But what does seem unfortunate is to leave our home-grown talent pool untapped, indeed undeveloped. Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of the STEM workforce, and only 3 percent in those jobs that require a doctorate.

Not to grow our own is not only unfortunate, but risky. Since the implementation of tighter student visa controls in the wake of 9/11, we’re seeing fewer international students in our graduate STEM programs. As the vast economic potential of India and China becomes more and more developed, we are going to have a harder time attracting their best and brightest to our jobs. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about developing the best and brightest among our own.

What would this mean? Haven’t our best research universities been actively recruiting minority students, in STEM as well as other fields, and often offering significant scholarship money to address financial barriers to access? Hasn’t this been going on for a decade or more? And hasn’t there been only a modest increase in Latinos at Ivy League institutions and flagship public research institutions? In spite of these efforts, the answer to the last question is yes.

Let me suggest some different places to start. Since the majority of Hispanic students attend Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), it makes sense to focus efforts on improving the capacity of these institutions. They can and often do provide a solid grounding in undergraduate STEM education and a direct connection to advanced studies at the nation’s premier research universities.

But HSIs tend to be underfunded, receiving on average a third less federal funding per student than other institutions of higher education. STEM education is expensive and HSIs need an equitable share of the resources if they are to provide the foundations for the nation’s Hispanic STEM future. The research university community also needs to be building on-going relationships with HSIs, designed both to recruit Latino students to their graduate programs and to provide more, more varied, and higher level research opportunities for undergraduate STEM majors (and their HSI faculty). Now that strategy works only for the final segments of the STEM pipeline, college undergraduate and graduate students. More serious challenges lie in the aspirations of Hispanic students in K-12 for STEM careers and in their academic preparation for later STEM studies.

The aspiration question can often be overlooked. But the reality is that young people can hardly aspire to a career if they never know anyone in that career or never see anyone like them in that career. Low-income students are unlikely to be living down the block from a research scientist, so special outreach efforts are needed to make them aware of their own career possibilities and to convince them these are really possible for them.

HSIs and research universities both have roles to play in these outreach efforts, exposing elementary, middle and secondary students to college students in STEM who look like them and to active STEM professionals who can nourish their dreams. HSIs will probably need some encouragement and some (but not a lot of) resource support to do this outreach.

Addressing the K-12 academic preparation of Latinos is an even bigger challenge. The fact is there’s a scarcity of qualified STEM teachers in many schools and the scarcity is worse in poorer school districts. STEM teacher preparation needs to be a long-term goal.

More immediately, HSIs and research universities can provide summer institutes (with appropriate follow up) to motivate and prepare middle and high school students for rigorous math and science courses. Conducting these institutes on college campuses helps also to make these students feel at home in what would otherwise be a foreign country of higher education. And early academic intervention can help them surmount some of the barriers of college entrance tests and college “gatekeeper” courses in STEM. The University of Texas San Antonio’s TexPrep model is just one best practice in this regard worth replicating.

There are other strategies that need to be explored, but we haven’t the leisure to continue to do nothing (or little). The clock is ticking on the President’s goal. The shortage of qualified U.S. born STEM workers is already upon us (and has been for a while). The time to act is now.

Dr. Antonio Flores is the president and CEO of HACU.