Engineer Workforce

Engineering Emergency: African Americans and Hispanics Lack Pathways to Engineering

By Change the Equation

This article is reproduced from a brief, released in February 2014 by Change the Equation, which examines how engineering, like all STEM disciplines, offers a wage premium and employment security. The report addresses a growing concern about the barriers to lucrative engineering careers for students of color.  

Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, millions of Americans still lack opportunities to join the middle class. A quality education that leads to good jobs offers a reliable pathway to economic security, yet the first step on that pathway remains inaccessible to far too many Americans, especially Americans of color.

Nowhere is this inequity more apparent than in engineering. On average, people with engineering bachelor’s degrees earn higher salaries than people with bachelor’s degrees in any other field, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 690,000 engineering job openings by 2022.

Source: Change the Equation

African Americans and Hispanics remain much less likely than white Americans to reap these rewards, presenting both a moral and an economic crisis. This disparity deepens income inequality in the United States while leaving untapped the creative potential of millions of Americans. We cannot address these inequities through college programs alone. Instead, we must strengthen the pipeline

Reports on the condition of STEM learning in the United States to engineering and other STEM fields in our elementary and secondary schools by setting high academic expectations for all students while greatly expanding minorities’ access to advanced STEM learning opportunities.


We need all hands on deck

Without students of color, our nation cannot supply all the engineering talent it needs to remain at the forefront of innovation. U.S. employers report that engineering positions are among the hardest to fill.  Engineers have skills that are in high demand outside of engineering, which exacerbates the shortage.

The challenge has become especially acute for defense companies and government agencies that, by law, cannot fill sensitive security positions with foreign nationals. Some foreign policy experts perceive shortages of domestic engineering talent as a threat to national security.

The problem will only intensify as racial and ethnic minorities become the majority of Americans. More than 40 percent of children aged 5 and under are either African American or Hispanic, and they will comprise more than 40 percent of all working-aged adults in just 30 years.

Only a small share of engineering degrees and certificates goes to African Americans and Hispanics African Americans and Hispanics comprise a third of the college-aged population, yet together they earn less than 16 percent of all engineering degrees and certificates.

Though their college-aged population has grown since 2001, their share of degrees and certificates remained mostly flat.

The higher the degree, the fewer people of color

A closer look at these data reveals an even more troubling picture. By 2022, 9 in 10 new engineering jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, yet most of the engineering credentials African American and Hispanics earn are below the bachelor’s level. The reverse is true for whites.


In fact, the higher the engineering degree, the smaller the percentage earned by African Americans and Hispanics. They comprise 33.3 percent of the college-aged population, and they earn:

  • 34.8 percent of certificates
  • 21.1 percent of associate’s degrees
  • 12.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees
  • 7.2 percent of master’s degrees
  • 4.0 percent of doctoral degrees

These disparities put African Americans and Hispanics at a big disadvantage. The annual mean salary for engineering jobs that require mostly a bachelor’s degree or higher was more than $90,000 in 2012, and such jobs are projected to grow 8.6 percent by 2022. “Engineering technology” jobs, most of which require less than a bachelor’s degree, paid a mean salary of less than $54,000 and are projected to grow by just 2.1 percent.

Hispanics make gains in bachelor’s degrees and higher while African Americans lose ground

While Hispanic and African Americans face hurdles in engineering, they are not on the same trajectory. Since 2001, Hispanics have been making strides in engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level and higher while African Americans have fallen back.

Between 2001 and 2012, Hispanics almost doubled the number of bachelor’s degrees and higher that they earn each year. Among African Americans, by contrast, the number grew a meager 26 percent, much slower than the overall growth of engineering degrees. The end result is that African Americans’ piece of the engineering “pie” is shrinking.

Can we rest assured that Hispanics are well on their way to earning a proportional share of engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level and higher? Hardly. Even if other groups remained static, Hispanics would need to triple the number of engineering degrees they earn to reach their proportional share.

The inequities start early

We sow the seeds of these inequitable outcomes in our elementary and secondary schools, which all too often limit, rather than expand, the horizons of African American and Hispanic students.

Hispanic and especially African American students lack access to resources in math and science. Forty-seven percent of Hispanic eighth-graders, and fully half of African Americans at that grade level, have science teachers who say they lack materials and resources to teach science. Twenty-seven percent of Hispanic and 35 percent of African eight-graders have math teachers who report lacking resources.  (Twenty-five percent of White eight-graders fall into that category.)

African Americans, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, also lack access to challenging math and science courses that are gateways to engineering careers. Many attend schools that do not even offer physics or calculus every year.

Because of the limited access to challenging coursework, we are squandering the potential of students of color. Only 3 in 10 African American and Hispanic students who have the potential to succeed in Advanced Placement math classes actually take those classes. Of those who do not take AP classes, half report that the classes are not available, and the other half report lacking the confidence to take them.

This problem extends to the elementary and middle grades. While 63 percent of high-achieving white fifth-graders enroll in Algebra in eighth grade, only 35 percent of high-achieving African American fifth-graders do.  Those who do not may never find the pathway to engineering or other rewarding STEM careers.

Turning the tide

How can we accelerate progress for Hispanic students and turn the tide for African Americans in engineering?

  • Stay the course on high academic standards. Forty-five states have adopted Common Core State Standards for what every student should know and be able to do at each grade level in math. These standards are clearer and more challenging than most states’ previous standards, and therefore they chart a clearer course toward STEM literacy for every young person. In addition, nine states have adopted common Next Generation Science Standards that explicitly include practices engineers use. As states do the hard work of putting these standards into practice, they should pay special attention to giving teachers, especially those who teach students of color, the support and resources they need.

  • Support meaningful high school graduation requirements. Every high school graduate should take four years of math and science, including challenging courses such as Algebra II. Currently, only 11 states require four years of math and science. Meaningful graduation requirements are among the strongest defenses we have against the persistent tendency to track low-income and minority students into less advanced classes. Students who satisfy only the minimum requirements in most states find themselves out of the running for an engineering career long before they are old enough to make that choice for themselves.

  • Improve access to challenging and inspiring math and science education in K-12. Programs like Engineering is Elementary, which integrates engineering into elementary school science classes, and Project Lead the Way, which offers an engaging engineering curriculum and teacher training in middle and high school, are proven to boost student performance and promote interest in engineering careers. The National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program has dramatically raised the number of African American and Hispanic students who take and pass AP exams in math, science, and English. Programs like these can expand opportunity to communities that have long lacked STEM learning options.

Of course, not every student is destined to become an engineer, but every high school graduate should master enough STEM skills to pursue engineering if she wants to.  Equal opportunity is not only a moral promise we make to every child, it is the foundation of U.S. prosperity. We cannot thrive as a nation if we do not draw on the talents of all Americans.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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