The U.S. Needs More People With Technical Expertise

Throughout the 20th century, the United States was widely viewed as a world leader in innovation. From putting a man on the moon, through the development of microchips, personal computers and the Internet, to today’s mobile communications, our technological innovations have changed the way we live and work, and kept our economy moving briskly.

Even before the recent economic downturn there was concern about where America was going to get the technical talent needed to continue the pace of innovation and economic growth. Our country needs more individuals with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

As President Obama stated during a January 2011 visit to a wind turbine plant in upstate New York, “We want an economy that’s fueled by what we invent and what we build.”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report in 2011 recommending recruiting and training 100,000 great STEM teachers during the next decade to inspire and prepare students for STEM careers.

I don’t think we can wait that long. Competition for technical talent, particularly for American citizens with security clearances to work on sensitive projects for the government, is already intense. We need to get more talent into that pipeline now. The question is how and where to start.

In the United States, the Census Bureau projects that by 2050 African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders will account for about 45 percent of the U.S. population. Although these minority groups are the fastest-growing segment of the population, they are sorely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to the National Science Foundation, African-Americans comprise 15 percent of the population between ages 20 and 24, yet account for only 8 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. The ratio is similar for Hispanics.

The numbers are even more revealing when we look at the percentage of students from underrepresented groups who go on to obtain master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s in STEM fields. The 2002 Survey of Earned Doctorates reports that African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians earned fewer than 1 percent of all Ph.D.’s in science and engineering. It’s doubtful the numbers have changed much since then.

A significant number of today’s women and underrepresented minority scientists were actually discouraged from pursuing STEM careers at some point in their lives. The top three causes/contributors to underrepresentation in STEM include lack of quality science and math education programs, persistent stereotypes and financial issues related to the cost of education.

For the United States to maintain its global competitiveness, this situation needs to change. But no single entity can make this happen. We need a concerted effort across the public and private sectors, including greater involvement in supporting scholarships and academic programs aimed at increasing minority participation in the math and science disciplines at all levels — from elementary school through high school and college to graduate and doctoral programs. Doing so will expand the pool of talented people who can deliver the innovation that separates America from its competitors around the globe, today and for the future.

I know from experience that these kinds of programs work. As an employer member of The National GEM Consortium for the past 30 years, The MITRE Corp. has sponsored 65 GEM fellows over the years. The objective of the GEM fellow program is to promote the benefits of a master’s degree within industry. GEM fellows are provided practical engineering summer work experiences through an employer sponsor and a portable academic year fellowship of tuition, fees and a stipend that may be used at any participating GEM member university where the GEM fellow is admitted. Our country’s ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century requires more networks and programs such as these.

Al Grasso is president and CEO of The MITRE Corp., a not-for-profit company that manages federally funded research and development centers for the government, and president of the board of directors of The National GEM Consortium. He can be reached at