Written by: Barry Waldman
Many of the best jobs in America, and here in the Charleston region – the most secure, most in-demand, and highest paying – are in the tech field. Generally, they require education heavy in science, technology, engineering, and/or math – STEM.
This has not been good news for women and most minority groups. For myriad reasons – cultural and economic among them – women and Black and Latino Americans have not commonly considered STEM fields as their path to success. That leaves a tech sector poorer for the variety of perspectives other voices can provide. It also leaves women and minorities poorer for their inability to claim the best jobs.
Many efforts are underway today in South Carolina generally and in the Lowcountry specifically to alter the STEM landscape.
Fostering STEM Education
The South Carolina Commission on Higher Education has established a plan to achieve equitable educational outcomes as the only path to increasing educational attainment for the state as a whole. The Commission has set a 2030 goal of increasing to 60% the percentage of South Carolinians with high-quality post-secondary education credentials. A Commission report says “high-quality credentials are defined as ones that provide clear pathways to further education, employment, or both.” Currently, 47% of Palmetto State adults qualify.
The disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on low-income households and people of color has been widely documented. It raises concerns about diminished educational access for those groups.
“The Lowcountry Graduate Center embraces the commitment by the Commission on Higher Education, alongside the 2020 call to action by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance following a report by Ernst & Young, to take action with intentionality to help lift minorities in our population out of poverty through their attainment of higher educational studies leading to improved earnings capability and economic parity,” said Dr. Nancy Muller, director of the LGC.
The accounting behemoth Ernst & Young’s inclusivity index found a correlation between workforce diversity and economic growth. All 10 of the 50 large metros studied with the highest inclusivity ratings posted economic growth of 12% or greater from 2014-2019, based on new job growth as its measure. Nine of the 10 metros scoring lowest for inclusivity failed to reach double-digit economic growth. That one metro was Salt Lake City, an outlier in other ways as well.
STEMapalooza is STEMulating!
In tech, the numbers suggest a challenge ahead. Minority groups not including Asian Americans comprise 36% of the population but only 17% of the broadly defined tech industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Boomtown, the real estate marketing technology company and a darling of the local tech industry, was not able to recruit and retain a single Black engineer in 2019 when it collaborated with the National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) to host STEMapalooza, a kid-friendly fair to promote the study of STEM. The fair showcased fun STEM activities, “STEMulating” the minds of K-12 students.
“NSBE has set a primary goal of increasing the annual number of African-Americans who receive STEM degrees to 10,000 by the year 2025,” the organization said in a release about the event. “STEMapalooza will move NSBE closer towards this goal and serve to encourage and inspire African American students to achieve academic excellence in STEM.”
The number of non-Asian minorities in the Charleston tech scene appears even smaller than the national trends. Efforts to improve that record continue. “There are quite a few people of color who are qualified and have aptitude to participate,” said Nina Magnesson, Catalyst for Citizenship & Social Innovation at BoomTown. “We’re encouraging regional tech companies to recruit students from HBCUs.”
Women in Tech
Other local efforts are being made to reach out to diverse populations not ordinarily exposed to opportunities in tech. The YWCA of Greater Charleston operates a program called Y Girls Code to teach girls coding. It has established Y Girls Code Clubs at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School, a Title 1 school; at Morris Brown AME Church; and at local libraries for girls in third-12th grades.
The dearth of women working in STEM fields is also a concern. Fewer than a quarter of employees at Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft are women. Charleston Women in Tech has conducted coding school and mentorship programs to encourage girls to consider STEM careers. The organization boasts 3,000 members who connect, support and prepare women at all stages of their careers.
Preparing women and minorities for the tech field requires a decades-long effort to instill them with interest in STEM as children, nurture that educationally, and provide opportunities in the workplace. Local tech leaders recognize the value of doing so.
Says Boomtown’s Nina Magnesson: “Studies show how much more successful a company is when they have diverse workforce. It is also the right thing to do because talent is talent. It can only enrich a company’s ability to perform its mission.”