Recruiting Native Americans for STEM Careers

By William Atkinson Jan 25, 2013
Reuse Permissions

When professional engineer Steven Yazzie was a child, his father, an electrician, took him to visit a local Navajo reservation to wire homes for friends and relatives.

“I was his tool helper,” said Yazzie, an operations and maintenance supervisor at the Salt River Project, a coal-fired plant near Tempe, Ariz. “Seeing him be able to provide power and lighting to areas that didn't have it before opened my eyes and got me interested in work that could make people happy and provide power to their homes.”

His father specifically encouraged him to go into engineering, explaining that while electricians wire up the power, someone else has to generate the power in the first place.

Yazzie took this advice and majored in electrical engineering in college, attaining his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and his master’s from the University of Arizona. “College was a challenge, and there were some times I felt like changing my major,” he admitted, “but with the support of [the American Indian Science and Engineering Society] AISES and my family, I was able to stay with it.”

AISES helps Native American job applicants and employers connect. The organization provides merit-based scholarships and internships to American Indian and Native American students who are studying in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It also provides professional development programming at annual events to build these workers’ skills.

AISES helped Yazzie secure a college internship at Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon) in Tucson, Ariz. He had a summer internship with Sandia National Laboratories, as well.

“After I graduated, I went to work for Sandia, which then sent me for my master’s degree,” Yazzie said. He returned to Sandia for two years, working primarily in research, before taking a job at Intel in Chandler, Ariz., where he spent five years as an engineer and group leader before moving to the Salt River Project (SRP).

“Over the years, I worked closely with the HR and recruiting people at Sandia, Intel and SRP,” he said. “I began to understand the value of diversity, hiring people with different backgrounds and perspectives to come up with solutions to challenging issues.”

Still, Yazzie is one of a very small percentage of Native Americans who pursue STEM careers—a fact that he and others are working to change.

Dearth in Diversity for STEM Jobs

In July 2012 the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME) published a research paper titled American Indians in Engineering. The article reported that there are fewer American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) in the STEM fields compared with other minority groups. AI/ANs made up only 0.1 percent of engineering faculty in 2009, and they make up only 0.4 percent of the engineering workforce as a whole, according to the report, which cites data presented in the NACME Data Book, 2011.

“Regarding AI/AN engineering graduates being employed in science, engineering and related occupations, the numbers are more promising,” said Marie Thames, interim CEO for Albuquerque, N.M.-based AISES. As of 2006, which Thames believes to be the most recent year for which data are available, 55 percent of AI/AN engineering graduates were employed in these fields, a higher percentage than for whites (53 percent), Latinos (49 percent) and African-Americans (46 percent).

According to Dave Wilson, Ph.D., director of American Indian affairs & policy for the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), it is important for companies that want to hire Native Americans in STEM careers to work with organizations such as SACNAS, AISES and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

“Although we are relatively small organizations, we have tremendous contacts throughout the nation,” he explained.

At targeted institutions, SACNAS oversees several STEM-focused programs designed to enhance professional development and leadership among Native American undergraduates who are pursuing STEM degrees.

“One of these programs is at Oklahoma State University, which, for the last two years, has produced the largest number of American Indian undergraduates with science degrees,” Wilson said.

AISES also holds the largest career fair in Indian Country (the self-governing Native American communities throughout the U.S. on federal trust lands held for Native Americans). During the career fair recruiters from Fortune 500 companies, the government, institutions of higher learning and the military may recruit AI/AN STEM talent.

“It is not uncommon for job offers to be tendered on the floor of the career fair,” said Thames.

Corporate Recruiting Remains a Challenge

Sandia National Laboratories has a commitment to hiring Native Americans into STEM careers, said Laurence E. Brown, government relations manager for Sandia and chairman of the AISES Corporate Advisory Committee. For the past 20 years, Brown has specialized in recruiting Native American students and professionals for Sandia.

“We focus on recruiting master’s level and Ph.D.s,” he said, adding that the organization rarely hires candidates with just a bachelor’s.

It has been a challenge to attract Native Americans with STEM Ph.D.s to corporations, according to Brown.

“About five years ago our HR folks pulled data from a national data resource, as our company was strategizing on where to recruit,” said Brown. “We wanted to know the number of Ph.D.s available.”

Answer: Not many.

“There is a huge demand, and it is not being met because the numbers are so small,” he explained. “For example, there are probably fewer than 10 [AI/ANs] graduating in science and engineering at the Ph.D. level per year.”

One key to success for Sandia in recruiting Native Americans is creating and building relationships.


American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)

PO Box 9828

Albuquerque, NM 87119

(505) 765-1052

Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)

PO Box 8526

Santa Cruz, CA 95061

(831) 459-0170

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME)

440 Hamilton Ave., Suite 302

White Plains NY 10601-1813

(914) 539-4010

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

1516 P St. N.W.

Washington, DC 20005

(202) 466-7767

“It is important to identify good students at an early age, build relationships with them and then help them along the way,” Brown said. It also helps to have work locations near the Native American communities, such as the Southwest and Northwest or Minnesota.

“Most Native Americans have a real affinity for giving back to their communities and also attending ceremonies, so they want to be able to work close to home,” Brown explained.

Another company that makes attracting Native Americans to STEM positions a high priority is Virginia-based Harris IT Services.

“Globally, we have about 15,000 employees, almost 6,000 of whom are engineers and scientists, so we have a huge commitment to STEM, especially in our hiring practices, as well as to STEM education,” said Shana Folk, senior manager of recruiting and talent acquisition for Harris. “We have a strong college recruiting program that focuses on STEM talent, and we look for a diverse group of employees, including Native Americans, because we have a strong commitment to diversity in our organization.”

Harris supports STEM initiatives at a number of universities. “One where we have had great success in recruiting Native Americans with STEM degrees is New Mexico State University,” she noted.

In addition, Harris encourages its experienced Native American employees to reach out to other potential candidates.

But recruiting Native Americans for STEM positions is still a work in progress, according to Margaret Paulin, campus relations manager for Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles.

“We partner with our core schools to attract diverse talent, including Native Americans,” Paulin said. “Our recruiting teams and recruiting leads connect and support the AISES chapters at our core schools, as appropriate.”

Moreover, the company sponsors related employee-resource groups and has workers who are involved at the professional level with organizations such as the Southern California AISES professional chapter. “We also have recruited at the annual AISES conference and related regional conferences,” said Paulin.

Northrop Grumman is usually a sponsor of the annual AISES National Conference and provides scholarship assistance to students pursuing STEM-related degrees awarded through AISES.

“We also present professional development workshops, such as Evaluating Your Job Offer, at the conferences to assist collegians as they enter the workforce,” Paulin said.

As she sees it, it is important for employers to do more to encourage Generation Y and tech-savvy students (now being referred to as the “i-Generation”) to pursue STEM degrees.

“Organizations can provide mentors to collegians and precollege students, as well as provide resources to teachers,” she suggested. “This is a great way to identify emerging talent.”

Paulin said organizations also can be more collaborative in providing programs and financial support. “Perhaps together we can discover a viable and repeatable approach to increase the number of Native Americans pursuing STEM education and hiring into STEM positions.”

William Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Carterville, Ill.​

Reuse Permissions


The application deadline is November 11

Apply Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect