Wisconsin State Journal | Jason M. Fields: Help more people of color seek STEM careers

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Some days, I feel like crying. Some days, I feel like shouting. So many days I ask myself, “Are they even listening?”

Federal, state and local leaders need to consider the harm of not facilitating economic development strategies that help people of color establish sustainable ecosystems to empower them to create wealth.

For a community to create wealth, it needs a workforce that can withstand the test and trials of an economic downturn and, as we found out in 2020, a worldwide pandemic.

Black and Hispanic workers continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This also is true of computing positions, which have significantly increased in recent years.

According to Pew Research Center, Hispanic adults have a substantial disparity in STEM workforce representation. Hispanic workers make up 17% of the entire workforce across all occupations, but only 8% of STEM workers. Their share of all STEM workers has increased by 1% since 2016, in line with their overall workforce growth.

Black employees account for 11% of all employed people, but only 9% of workers in STEM fields. Furthermore, their participation is lower in some STEM employment clusters, with only 5% in engineering and architecture jobs. Since 2016, the percentage of Black workers in STEM jobs has been unchanged.

Pew Research Center also tells us white workers account for two-thirds of STEM workers (67%) compared to 63% across all occupations. Engineers and architects are disproportionately white workers (71%). On the other hand, they make up 62% of computer workers, which is a minor underrepresentation. Since 2016, the white percentage of employment in STEM occupation clusters has decreased, following the overall reduction in white employment across all occupations.

When compared to their 6% share of overall employment across all occupations, Asian employees are overrepresented in STEM occupations, accounting for 13% of workers. About 3% of STEM employees are Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or those who identify with two or more racial groupings.

Let’s assume we recognize the advantages of having STEM workers. Let’s also assume we already understand that our communities collectively benefit when we empower people of color, including Black and Indigenous people, with opportunities to be successful. Then why are we not seeing more dollars and policies targeting these communities, which would do just that — create wealth?

As president and CEO of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, my first responsibility is to ask and answer the question: “Is our region a great place to live, work and play?” My second is to evaluate, “for whom?”

The Wisconsin State Journal recently reported that “Wisconsin received close to $2.5 billion in federal relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. All told, the state has been allocated more than $4.5 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus funds.”

Given the growing opportunities to support people of color through economic development strategies and policies that prioritize funding STEM-related endeavors, it would be a huge loss if in 10 years we looked back on this moment in history and realized that the billions in American Rescue Plan Act dollars generated no return on investment for communities of color.