It’s Time to Build a STEM Workforce as Diverse as America

Diversity – and diversity of thought – are the sparks that ignite the fire of innovation that drives our place in the international economy and boosts our national security.

By Mark Russell

Erick Aponte was planning a career in business when his high school math teacher suggested a mentoring program that steers students toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Aponte agreed to the change and soon, he was hooked.

He joined the robotics team at his high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Started doing homework with his new mentor, an engineer. Began researching top college engineering programs. And four years after entering college, with a degree in electrical engineering under his belt from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Aponte accepted – you guessed it – an engineering job at Raytheon, where he is now a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

In America today, we need more Erick Apontes. We need to build a workforce that looks like America, one that fully represents our diverse populations of women, Hispanics, African-Americans and other minorities. In today's global innovation economy, our country and our economy can only succeed when we create a pipeline that supplies the best talent and the best ideas. Whether you're designing circuits for Raytheon or algorithms for a software startup, we need to build a workforce that supports young people from all backgrounds.
In many ways, as a country and an economy we're failing to do that.

Despite millions of dollars spent by the public and private sectors, we've failed to close gender and racial gaps in science, technology, engineering and math, according to the second annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index. In some cases, they've grown wider: The 2015 Index shows that women lag behind men in the number of STEM degrees granted, exam scores and general interest in the STEM fields. The differences are just as stark when you look at race: White and Asian students and college graduates outpaced black, Hispanic and American Indian students in each of those three measures.

These shortcomings matter because diversity – and diversity of thought – are the sparks that ignite the fire of innovation that drives our place in the international economy and boosts our national security. Without diversity, the ability to innovate stagnates.

Encouraging and enabling not just some but all of our citizens to pursue education and careers in STEM creates a positive ripple effect throughout our society. The jobs are there. The growth in the number of STEM-related jobs is outpacing the rest of the U.S. economy by about 300 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and those jobs pay well. In the United States, the average professional with a STEM degree earns about $78,000 per year, which is great by any standard.

We all share the responsibility – government officials and corporate leaders alike – to encourage diversity in the fields of science, technology, education and mathematics. The good news is many meaningful efforts are already underway to make diversity in STEM a priority.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides after-school programs for young people across the U.S., often in underserved areas with diverse populations, and has focused on increasing STEM learning in its clubs nationwide. US2020 and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering work to ensure American competitiveness by increasing the number of African-American, American Indian and Latino women and men in STEM education and careers, with a focus on scholarships. Student Veterans of America helps to develop science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and mentorship programs, and supports student veterans in the transition from campus to career. At Raytheon, we're proud to sponsor Engineering is Elementary, which integrates engineering into elementary classrooms and brings together children from different cultures to solve engineering problems.

Important steps are being taken. Aponte is proof that each of us can make a difference. Like Aponte, we owe it to the next generation to pay it forward – he is doing his part by becoming a mentor to teach students the benefits of a STEM career. What role will you play in boosting the pipeline of diverse STEM-trained talent to power our innovation economy for the next century and beyond? Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #STEMSolve and tell us how you will make a difference.

Mark E. Russell is Vice President of Engineering, Technology and Mission Assurance for Raytheon Company (@Raytheon) and Chairman of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.


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