Bridging Engineering's Minority Gap

Encouraging more women, African Americans, Latinos, and people with disabilities to pursue math and science makes good business sense

As Presidents Day marks the start of National Engineers Week, it's worth wondering what Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might have said about the state of engineering today.

As it happens, both Washington and Lincoln were land surveyors—the prototypical engineer of their day—and Lincoln was the only U.S. President to earn a patent. It is very likely that they might have praised the profession for helping make this country great. But as humanitarians, they might have wished we had done more to encourage minorities to carve out careers in engineering and the sciences.

That's why, as we mark Engineers Week in tandem with these Presidents' birthdays, the engineering community is turning a spotlight on diversity. The aim: to give individuals historically underrepresented in engineering and the sciences—blacks, Hispanics, women, and people with disabilities—greater opportunity to develop their intellectual talents to help humankind, not to mention our economy.

Report Shows Only Some Progress

Most engineers love numbers, but the statistics coming out of a 2007 National Science Foundation report titled Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science & Engineering are not uniformly reassuring.

On one hand, there is good news. Hispanics have become better represented in undergraduate engineering programs, and the number of engineering degrees awarded to women has steadily increased every year since 1966. In addition, women went from making up 37% of science and engineering graduate students in 1994 to 42% in 2004.

But there is much work to be done.

The National Science Foundation study shows that African American students make up about 6% of engineering undergraduate students. Women's share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37% to 25% between 1985 and 2004. Those with physical disabilities also are underrepresented.

The same trends persist in private industry, where minorities, women, and those with disabilities supervise smaller teams of engineers compared with those supervised by whites, men, or those without disabilities.

A Looming Shortage

Why should this worry the private sector? Because engineering talent doesn't come in one ethnicity, color, gender, or physical attribute. Cultivating more technical talent across the board just makes plain, good business sense. The number of retiring workers from science and engineering will mushroom over the next 20 years, aggravating an existing shortfall of technical skills that has already left 1.3 million engineering jobs vacant.

By 2010, the U.S. will need 20% more engineers, yet the growth rate in the number of engineering, math, and science graduates is expected to be about 2%.

There is no better time than Engineers Week and Presidents Day to look to our future—to those we currently refer to as "minorities." By 2050, 85% of workforce entrants are expected to be people of color and women. And, says the National Science Foundation, minorities are expected to make up more than half of the resident college-age population of the U.S. by 2050, up from 34% in 1999. Today's minorities are tomorrow's majorities.

So what to do? For one thing, we ought to think like engineers and apply a healthy dose of persistence and creativity to solve the challenge.

Engineering a Solution

We need greater cooperation between academia, private industry, and government to establish programs that foster enthusiasm and skills for the sciences. Private industry needs to sponsor community mentorships, internships, and workshops for women, minorities, and the physically challenged, and school and camp programs that appeal to them as youths.

The education, hiring, and talent development of these groups ought to be more aggressive as well. We at IBM (IBM) have reaped the fruits of those types of efforts and encourage others to do the same.

Call it a challenge for the social, educational, and economic equivalent of the moon shot, harnessing two of the most powerful forces known to humankind: respect and opportunity. In our efforts this week and year, we would do well to remember that diversity is not an end in and of itself, but a means for achieving equity and cultivating economic opportunity for all.

Washington famously promised to give "bigotry no sanction," and Lincoln encouraged "malice toward none." In short, they believed that thinking people should practice unity and tolerance. Both were reluctantly willing to wage war to accomplish those goals and win freedom for the disadvantaged.

In that same spirit, let's wage an intellectual struggle with the same determination as any physical campaign. As we mark Presidents Day, and as we celebrate the progress we've already made in promoting opportunity within the engineering field, let's fulfill Washington's and Lincoln's ideals, and solve one more Grand Challenge.

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