Women, Minorities Vastly Underrepresented in Engineering Profession

Numbers of minority engineers are growing but they still make up a small percentage of total engineers.

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The number of minority professionals in engineering is creeping up, but not fast enough, according to a new report by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

"We continue to see modest increases at every level of engineering," Irving Pressley McPhail, CEO of the organization, says. "But the larger question remains—and that is the issue of proportionality. As the underrepresented population continues to grow, the number of them becoming engineers hasn't kept pace."

Though African-Americans and Latinos make up 12 and 16 percent of the U.S. population, respectively, they make up just 5 and 6.2 percent of the engineering workforce. Women are similarly underrepresented: Just 13.4 percent of engineering professionals are women.

McPhail says the dwindling proportion of minority engineers are "threatening the U.S. pre-eminence in STEM," and that the United States needs to tap into the "hidden talent" of minorities.

[Read McPhail's opinion piece: The 'New' American Dilemma.]

The organization is compiling a list of best education practices and STEM programs to try to re-engage and initiate minority students' interest in STEM fields.

"We're really now beginning to zero in on the evidence for what works," he says. "At the beginning, there were a lot of ideas thrown at the problem. We've been at this long enough that we're seeing some models emerge, and they're worthy of more exploration and resource support."

Last week, the organization held a national symposium in St. Paul to release its findings, with experts from organizations such as ExxonMobil, the National Academy of Engineering, and PBS NewsHour. McPhail says he didn't want to waste the experts' time by rehashing old ideas—he wanted to talk about solutions.

"I did not want to bring a group of committed, passionate, and bright people to talk about the problem," he says. "I wanted to talk about what they have learned and what concrete action is beginning to show some signs of success."

The organization recommends increasing the number of paths students can take to successful engineering careers. Instead of one "pipeline" that runs through four-year universities and graduate programs, the organization recommends that students look for "the various ways that individuals might obtain the skills and training necessary to join the engineering workforce rather than using a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach."

McPhail says two-year associate's degrees are often sufficient to find viable work opportunities in the field, but that community colleges should be seen "not as a stopping point, but as a starting point." Half of the nation's community colleges have engineering transfer programs that can be used as a stepping stone for a bachelor's or master's degree in the field, he says.

He recommends that companies and states begin focusing on STEM at an earlier age and help students who have dropped out re-enter high school and community college.

"The key is to look at all of this as a continuum," he says. "You've got to start early, beginning in middle school. Actually, if we had money, we'd begin [pushing STEM] in kindergarten."

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