STEMing the tide of unemployment

Have you ever heard of a transportation engineer? Do you know what they do for a living? These are the people who design the highways, roadways and runways that help us get to where we need to go. And guess what? They are in demand.

Have you ever heard of a transportation engineer? Do you know what they do for a living? These are the people who design the highways, roadways and runways that help us get to where we need to go. And guess what? They are in demand.

I recently Googled “careers in engineering” and came across a Web site that lists careers in STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Transportation engineer was among a slew of career options listed on the Web site; some I had heard about, others were new to me. And, next to many of the career descriptions, in bold yellow letters, were the words “In Demand!” From nanosytems technologist to wind turbine service technician to statistician, employers are looking for you.

In demand are not words we hear a lot in today’s job market. Yet, just below the surface are opportunities in the life, behavioral and environmental sciences, in technology, in manufacturing and in engineering that our young people are not even aware of. What’s more, the focus on curricula that is necessary to prepare young people to work in these fields is missing at poorly funded schools. While everybody is looking for a quick fix to America’s job crisis, they need to start looking at STEM careers and how we can prepare both traditional and non-traditional students and young adults to qualify for these jobs.

STEM careers require various levels of educational achievement and specialized training.

But aptitude in math appears to be the prevailing prerequisite. Below average math achievement is the key barrier for African Americans to gaining access to employment in today’s growth industries. Math achievement gaps have long defined public education in underserved communities. Now, gaps in educational achievement once again threaten to exclude African Americans from the economic benefits.

Education reform is at the center of the debate over equal access by African Americans to economic and career opportunities. A focus on STEM education in underserved communities should be on a list of reforms that include longer school days and incentives to attract and retain better teachers. A more equitable school funding formula is also critical to accessing the resources to compete for 21st Century jobs. The Chicago Urban League is pressing on with its lawsuit to change the way public schools are funded in Illinois.

We have to do more than improve our schools, however. We must focus on improving student outcomes. I applaud Chancellor Cheryl Hyman for leading efforts at the City Colleges of Chicago to create the “Reinvention” initiative that, among other things, includes a focus on students who require remediation and helping them succeed at the college level.

At the Chicago Urban League, we are adding a STEM component to our NULITES youth education program to get 6th through 8th graders excited about math, science, technology and engineering. We have to start talking to young people about career options long before they are ready to graduate from high school. Students who participate in our program will explore careers in the fields of robotics, computer science, medical science, civil engineering and the social sciences. Whatever path they choose in the end, at least they will have made their decisions after weighing multiple career options.

So why is a focus on STEM education and STEM careers important to the Black community? It is important because these are middle-income, sustainable jobs. Currently, African Americans represent a larger share of the low-wage service industry workforce than the better-paying jobs in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, transportation and utilities. Employment data also shows that occupations with smaller shares of Black men pay higher wages. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, annual wages for occupations in which Black men are overrepresented is $37,005 compared to $50,333 for occupations in which they are underrepresented.

If we are to STEM the tide of unemployment in the African American community, we have to be committed to raising our young people’s achievement in math and exposing them to different types of careers. We must remember the generations before us who litigated, negotiated and demonstrated so that we could have access to a good education and job opportunities. Now, it’s our turn to pick up that mantle and be laser-focused on making sure that we aren’t left out of the recovery.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.