The 'New' American Dilemma: STEM and Minorities

America and its businesses need to recruit more minorities in STEM fields.


Irving Pressley McPhail is president and chief executive officer of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME), which supports expanding the participation of underrepresented minorities studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in P-20 education.  

In the 1940s, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist, developed a study called "An American Dilemma," which illustrated not only the obstacles faced by African-Americans in American society, but also the future of race relations in a democratic system. After 60 years of innovation, we are now faced with "The 'New' American Dilemma" that is, the relative absence of African-Americans, American Indians, and Latinos in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers needed to drive a diverse and globally competitive workforce through a flat world. 

With major demographic changes in the United States, the disparity of underrepresented minorities, including women, is becoming an increasing problem for the STEM disciplines. A study by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. on U.S. engineering degrees found that African-Americans, American Indians, and Latinos account for 34 percent of the total U.S. population (ages 18 to 24), but earn only 12 percent of all undergraduate degrees in engineering. In fact, the share of engineering degrees earned by these three groups declines at higher educational levels: 12 percent bachelor's, 7 percent master's, and 3 percent doctorates. Meanwhile, women account for nearly half—46 percent—of the U.S. labor force but account for just 10.8 percent of U.S. engineers. In order to remain competitive in the global marketplace, our education system must progress alongside our nation's evolving demographic. 

For the United States to continue to prosper and compete in the flattening world, we must do more to recruit Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the country, as well as other underrepresented minorities into the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Diversity drives innovation, and its absence imperils our designs, our products, and our creativity. Therefore, the United States must recognize this hidden talent pool in our country and begin utilizing private-sector funds to dissolve America's new dilemma. 

As the government continues to tighten its belt on budgets, and our education system remains stretched thin, the government has turned to corporations and nonprofits to form innovative public-private partnerships, or PPPs. These PPPs are driving initiatives across the country to recruit and train teachers, spur STEM education programs, and increase the number of students studying STEM from grade school to graduate school. They are also granting minority and economically disadvantaged students renewed access to STEM education. Corporations are providing a network of resources, mentors, and internship opportunities to help develop a workforce that not only reflects our nation's evolving demographic, but maintains our global competitiveness. 

Increased private investment is the key to America's new dilemma. It is essential to provide all ranks of students greater access to a quality higher education in the United States By training our nation's underserved talent, we are ensuring that we have the intellectual capital essential to enhance our position as the world's strongest economy, passing American greatness to the next generation.