Latinos Needed to Help Fill STEM Talent Pipeline, Experts Agree

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Sep 24, 2014

Tapping the country’s Hispanic population for high-tech jobs is critical to the future of U.S. competitiveness, according to experts who convened recently to discuss the barriers that limit this group’s accessibility to in-demand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions.

By 2050, Latinos will comprise a third of the U.S. population and over a quarter of the Millennial generation that will soon make up the majority of the workforce, noted Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for Microsoft. Yet Hispanics continue to be underrepresented when it comes to STEM degrees and jobs.

Gutierrez’s opening remarks kicked off the Sept. 18, 2014, event "A New America: Empowering Hispanic Millennials for Tech Leadership," underwritten by Microsoft and hosted by National Journal and The Atlantic at the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Among those in attendance was U.S. House Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., who also is an engineer. The youngest of 11 children growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, Cárdenas said he was inspired by his brother, who attended UCLA and became an engineer, and several teachers, who saw his strengths in math and encouraged him to build on his abilities. But he also encountered others in high school who said “he couldn’t cut [college].”

Latinos represent more than 11 million students in U.S. public schools, constituting more than 22 percent of all pre-K–12 students. Yet only one in 10 Hispanics has earned a bachelor’s degree by the time they’re in their late 20s.

“I was lucky I didn’t fall through the cracks,” said Cárdenas.

While in Congress, Cárdenas has introduced several bills to expand computer science programming in schools and to establish grant programs that would fund computer science career education training programs that integrate secondary and postsecondary education.

“The federal government can encourage and give grants, but it’s the state governments that need to make this happen,” he said.

The panel discussion highlighted the role of the country’s education system and private businesses in opening up opportunities for Hispanics, as well as other minority groups, to get a college education and find gainful employment in STEM fields. Programs such as Microsoft’s YouthSpark and Technology Education And Literacy in Schools (TEALS),as well as an increase in hackathon events, were cited as successful programs that help build awareness and students’ interest.

“We’re seeing some investment programs and federal agency coordination in providing grants, peer [support] and mentoring opportunities,” said Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

“But the private sector also needs to be willing to open hiring up to these students,” she added.

“We don’t have enough professors either,” said Renetta Tull, associate vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We must look at the total [talent] pipeline, tracking undergraduates to professorships or other educational opportunities for advancement. We have to train them and encourage them to move on and up to help their communities.”

Rafael Bras, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, agreed that a more holistic approach is needed to fill STEM talent pipelines.

“This is not just a Hispanic problem,” Bras said. “This is the entire country’s issue; financial support [to cover college costs] is important, but we can’t forget to address the other social mobility and cultural issues associated with this problem.”

Hispanic communities are getting the message that there is a place for them in these fields, said Deborah Santiago, co-founder, chief operations officer and vice president for policy for the organization Excelencia in Education. “But we’ve got to help students in the system now to ‘actualize’ their goals.”

“We must make sure students know what options they have and get them to think about what they want to be,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

She said that President Barack Obama’s education initiative focuses on supporting school programs that show evidenced-based success, that provide opportunities to grow the number of excellent teachers in these fields and that make college more affordable. In addition, the president has set a goal of educating 1 million new STEM graduates by 2020.

“This is not about altruism, it’s about competitiveness,” Muñoz said. “No amount of immigration reform or H-1B visas will help [the country] acquire the number of professionals we need to adequately meet the demand for these workers. We must grow our own workforce.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/content manager for SHRM.

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