The United States is losing a significant number of qualified minority engineers. Nonwhite and non-Asian engineers are leaving the field at a higher rate than others, according to the National Science Foundation. The NSF found that in 2013 (the latest year for which data are available), for those with graduate-level degrees, 10 percent of so-called underrepresented minority men and 17 percent of underrepresented minority women were working in a job unrelated to engineering, compared to 8 percent of white men and 11 percent of white and Asian women.
A diverse workforce has real benefits for organizations: Studies show that companies that are more diverse are more profitable, says Maya Beasley, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Beasley is also a cofounder of the T10 Group, a diversity consulting firm, and the author of Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
So how can businesses hire and retain more underrepresented minorities? Companies seeking to increase the diversity of their STEM workforce should create a plan with clear, measurable goals, says Beasley. The plan should list specific activities that staff will undertake to reach the stated goals. And when talking to staff about the company’s motivation for diversifying, focus on the business case; don’t preach about the benefits of equality. Diversity training is a billion-dollar industry, Beasley says, but “it turns out that diversity trainings are largely ineffective.” Unconscious-bias training also doesn’t change minds and hearts, she says, and it often backfires, by fueling resentment.
Companies with few black or Hispanic staff members face an extra challenge because nobody wants to be a token or work in an environment without peers, adds Beasley. Such companies that are transparent about staff diversity and demonstrate that they have a diversity plan in place will find candidates more willing to consider a job offer, she says.
Beasley says she’s tired of hearing companies saying it’s a “pipeline problem” because they can’t find qualified engineers and computer scientists to work for them. If companies small, medium, and large are competing to hire the same black and Hispanic STEM graduates from Stanford, MIT, and other elite schools, of course they’re going to have trouble, she says.
Every year, second- and third-tier institutions produce highly qualified graduates, but these schools aren’t even on recruiters’ radar. Some tech companies, including Google, have started recruiting at historically black colleges and universities. If companies keep going to the same well and finding it dry, Beasley says, they should look in a new well—such as professional groups and campus groups for underrepresented minorities.
Companies successfully diversify when they ask their existing engineers and programmers of color to recommend friends and colleagues for openings, says Karl W. Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers. Also, recruiting cohorts of multiple underrepresented minorities improves hiring and retention rates, he says. When he was hired as a systems engineer at IBM in the late 1980s, Reid notes that he met other African Americans during orientation and they developed a comradery that lasted after dispersing to their different departments. To boost retention, Reid says, first you have to have a critical mass of people of color, and then you have to have minorities in leadership roles.
Another way to improve diversity is to tackle the attrition problem head-on. People leave jobs when they are undervalued and sidelined, so management should meet regularly with employees of color and listen to them, says Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and author of more than 50 books on racism in the United States. And, he says, rather than an annual seminar, racial awareness programs must be long-term, involve the entire staff, and be woven into the culture.
Leadership is essential. “If the person at the top shows a strong commitment to these changes, they’re much more likely to happen, whether it’s a corporation, a small business, or a tech firm,” says Feagin.