Increasing Hispanic Participation
in Technical Fields

We call America the melting pot where individuals can, with the right encouragement, determination and passion, forge themselves a future of great promise and accomplishment. Many can appreciate the challenges my parents faced when they escaped from Cuba and arrived in America. With little more than their clothes, wedding rings, and me--their two-year-old son--they understood that economic times were difficult and immigrant opportunities limited. Yet they possessed extraordinary drive and resolve to succeed.

It was through their strong hands of encouragement, a cousin who opened up the world of engineering to me, and ultimately the great company of IBM, that my life was enriched with one key ingredient---opportunity. I believe opportunity is a powerful catalyst for Hispanics to reach for success. With opportunity, individuals can take their skills and engage them in the bigger community of a global and diverse workplace.

Engaging Hispanics in the technical global workforce is more important now than ever. In the next 40 years, the U.S. is projected to become home to the largest Hispanic population in the world. Yet, in our schools today, Latinos are more likely to drop out of high school than any other ethnic group, and are least likely to pursue a technical career. This is happening at the same time as the shift from a skills-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. For example, engineers and scientists are increasingly embedding knowledge into everyday devices. These devices are being connected to deliver intelligent information that is giving us unprecedented insight to make our world smarter.

Today we are using digital information to improve the traffic flow in our cities and reduce congestion and greenhouse gases. Our food supply chain systems are getting smarter and, as a result, we are reducing in transit food spoilage and improving the tracking of food-born illnesses from farm to factory. Electronic patient records are improving our medical care by providing practioners real time medical details and past health history.

All of these advances, however, require people with technical backgrounds who can create innovative products or systems. This is why we believe a focus on supporting education in our Hispanic communities is so important. A lack of support in this area could jeopardize America’s competitiveness and position in a global economy.

There are many reasons why Latinos do not focus on science, technology, engineering or math careers. For example, Latino college students are more likely to lack basic preparation in math and science because their prep schools did not offer advanced placement classes or qualified teachers in these subjects. IBM and other companies have launched programs to enable scientists and engineers to become teachers in K-12 schools as a second career. Today, we have 14 teachers in schools today and nearly 100 more earning their teaching credentials.

But that is only one part of the solution and teachers are not the only answer. The absence of role models for Latino students is a major inhibitor according to a Public Agenda survey of Hispanic leaders. Parent involvement is a factor as well. Immigrant parents face several obstacles involving long work hours, language barriers, lack of formal schooling, and cultural attitudes carried over from home countries that may hinder a parent’s role as an advocate for their child.

Businesses can use their unique assets to help. For example, IBM is offering free automatic translation software to any school district that wants it, and speech recognition software to help students learn to read and speak English as a second language. Most recently, IBM donated 1,000 Young Explorer computer learning centers to preschools and kindergarten classes across the nation with Hispanic populations of 40 percent or more.

We should place more focus on reducing the undergraduate attrition rates for Hispanics who express an interest in technical careers and make it to a college program. We need to surround them with the necessary mentors, support services and financial aid to help them succeed.

Most private Ivy League colleges provide these resources to their minority students, but more Latinos are likely to attend public colleges which lack proper resources. Individualized attention can help students so they do not fall between the cracks. IBM is working with a public university to pilot a set of online resources to offer mentoring and other resources. Our hope is that ultimately these resources would be offered to any college or university that wishes to adopt this technology to support Latino students.

These problems cannot be solved by one company or one sector of the economy. We need to get everyone involved -- from businesses and community centers, to parents and schools to solve this problem -- before it is too late. We have a collective responsibility to improve Hispanic education and ensure we contribute more effectively to the technical fabric of our society.

Now is the time to accelerate Hispanic technical contributions so they are proportionate to our percentage of the total U.S. population. The opportunity to help the greater community is right in front of us. The important thing is to maximize each and every opportunity that comes along – regardless of how small, large or difficult it may seem. By working together, Hispanics can indeed overcome the crucial challenges we face, and inspire a new generation of technologists that will form the cornerstone of a strong American technical workforce.

Adalio Sanchez is General Manaager, IBM System x