Computing Profession

A Stepping Stone to Stem?

A computer science class at Oregon's Clackamas Community College.
New research has found that engineering technology programs at community colleges provide a viable path for women and minorities to earn STEM degrees and obtain employment in STEM fields.

Working-class men, women, minorities and military veterans are enrolling in engineering technology (ET) programs at community colleges in order to access high paying, stable employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

That is a conclusion of a University of South Florida (USF) study, "Successful Academic and Employment Pathways in Advanced Technologies,"  research funded as part of an overarching $1.2-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011 to examine pathways into community college ET programs, as well as the barriers preventing working-class people from finding stable, high-paying STEM jobs.

The USF research team, led by principal investigator William Tyson, an associate professor in the university's sociology department, interviewed 57 students enrolled in ET programs at five southwest Florida community colleges between 2013 and 2015. The research focused on a diverse group of people, including both employed and unemployed working-class men and women, minorities, veterans, and military personnel.

The study found community college ET programs provide a viable path for underrepresented women and minorities to obtain employment in the ET workforce and earn STEM degrees. After that, they will be able to apply for employment in technology occupations that pay higher than the jobs they would normally try to obtain, according to Chrystal Smith, a research assistant professor in USF's Department of Anthropology and co-principal investigator and qualitative lead of the research team.

The study's findings will be published for the first time in the book "Gender in the Twenty-First Century: The Stalled Revolution and the Road to Equality," scheduled for publication in late July.

"Graduates with certification and associates degrees from two-year community college ET programs become technicians. They have the knowledge and applied skills to work in support of engineer­ing activities in high-tech manufacturing and other industries," Smith says.

While the study included both men and women, Smith and her colleagues from USF honed in on the cultural and gender issues women face in pursuing certification, associate and ET degrees at community colleges.

The study found that gender-based occupational stereotypes are still prevalent. "Oftentimes, advisors don't talk to women about ET, and many women never consult an advisor. These are among the contributing factors as to why women are five to seven times less likely to pursue ET degrees," Smith says.

Between 2000 and 2013, the number of women earning ET degrees stalled at roughly 5,000 annually, according to the National Science Board's most recent (2016) edition of Science and Engineering Indicators data, based on data the National Science Board collected from 2000 to 2013.  By contrast, during the same 13-year period, five to seven times as many men—between 30,000 and 35,000—earned ET degrees.

The research also found that  health-related occupations women traditionally pursue typically have lower wages and fewer opportunities for career advancement than the male-dominated technology-related occupations requiring similar levels of edu­cation.

"These community college associates degrees and ET programs are invaluable to working-class people and underrepresented groups like women and minorities. It provides people who lack a baccalaureate degree with potentially steady employment and advancement/promotion at higher salaries," Smith says.

The Hidden STEM Economy

The USF research into community college ET programs is one of only a handful of reports on this topic. Its findings support those of a 2013 study, "The Hidden STEM Economy," conducted by economist Jonathan Rothwell, at the time a fellow of the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. Rothwell's research found that as of 2011–2012, "the vast majority of National Science Foundation spending ignores community colleges."

That report revealed that of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education and training, only one-fifth goes towards supporting sub-bachelor's level training, while twice as much supports bachelor's or higher level-STEM careers.

Rothwell's research, like the USF study, found that STEM knowledge offers attractive wage and job opportunities to many workers with a post-secondary certificate or associate's degree. "Half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average—a wage 10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements," the report states. 

The Hidden Stem Economy report also revealed that STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree are "highly clustered in certain metropolitan areas, while sub-bachelor's STEM jobs are prevalent in every large metropolitan area." Technology-centric metropolitan areas like San Jose, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, have the most STEM-based economies. However, mid-sized and smaller cities like Baton Rouge, LA; Birmingham, AL; and Wichita, KS, have the largest share of STEM jobs in fields that do not require four-year college degrees. "These sub-bachelor's STEM jobs pay relatively high wages in every large metropolitan area," the study found.

Upcoming Research

Based on its findings, the NSF gave USF an additional grant of $778,000 to survey several thousand students currently enrolled in community college ET programs nationwide during the period from 2015 through 2018. 

A key takeaway from the initial qualitative USF research interviews, which the researchers will seek to validate with the forthcoming nationwide survey, is that when women are made aware of ET programs, they will sign up for them, Smith says.

A 2012 report by the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimated the U.S. will need approximately one million more STEM professionals than it will produce over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology.

In its 2015 report "Revisiting the STEM Workforce," a companion to the Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 Report, the NSF acknowledges the U.S. must increase initiatives to remove the roadblocks preventing underrepresented groups from participating in STEM. The report also noted the growing contingent of "sub-baccalaureate" or "technical STEM workforce" entering the fields, accounting for 20% of U.S. STEM jobs.  The report validates the findings of the USF study, stating, "Community colleges, career and technical education programs, and newer 'business-needs-oriented' educational efforts like the Professional Science Master's programs, can provide a bridge between education and skills-training."

Smith agrees.  "The women I interviewed were uniformly talented, hardworking, ambitious, committed to pursuing their post secondary educa­tion and determined to improve their socioeconomic status. They shared the belief that pursuing a degree in ET at a community college was a viable means to obtain employment in the STEM workforce, advancing their careers and increasing their salaries," she says.

She concludes, "Working-class people, women, and minorities are ready, available, and highly motivated to enter the STEM workforce via community college ET degrees. It's time we raise awareness." 

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston-area IT consultancy.

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