Race Is a Factor in STEM Opportunities

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The average compensation for STEM-related jobs was $95,420 in 2021, more than double the median annual compensation for non-STEM related jobs, finds a newly released study by Team NEO.

Many STEM jobs are in high demand. Yet minority students are not gravitating toward studies in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, according to “Misaligned Opportunities 2022.”

While Jacob Durisky, vice president of strategy and research for Team NEO, does not call the results of the study surprising, he says it is more “disappointing, that we continue to see too many minority communities and too many women underrepresented in the most in-demand occupations in northeast Ohio.”

Population is dropping in the 18-county region and the study found the workforce is becoming more diverse with the percentages of minority workers increasing.

Hispanics are projected to grow at a rate of 15% and Asians 11.7%, adding 31,000 and 10,000 respectively, while Blacks remain the second most populous racial group in the region. However, the Black population is expected to decrease 14% in the next five years.

Durisky is concerned that some minorities may leave the region because they are not as “plugged in” to the opportunities in the area as they should be.

While more than 5,700 Black students graduated from regional institutions in 2020, during the midst of COVID, fewer then 500 graduated in a STEM field. Liberal arts degrees led the way for Black, Hispanic and students listed as multiple or of unknown races. Although registered nursing is not listed as a STEM field in the study, it was in the top three completed programs for Black, Asian, Hispanic and those of mixed race.

While “STEM casts a pretty wide net,” Durisky explains, the official definition puts direct health care workers such as registered nurses in another category but scientists, such as a research doctor, would be considered STEM.

The highest representation in STEM occupations for Black workers is in the field of computer occupations, 10.8%, while Asian workers make up 20.5% of medical scientists.

Minorities are underrepresented in 19 of the top 20 in-demand occupations in northeastern Ohio, Durisky says.

Team NEO also studied women in STEM fields as part of its Lost Opportunities 2022 initiative. Both studies began during the pandemic, which affected women’s careers more. Durisky says the wage gap for women was not a new issue when the pandemic began. Disparities have gone on for decades and while there are more opportunities for women, the way gap has not improved.

Women with baccalaureates make the same as men with associate’s degrees. Women in many of the highest levels of in-demand fields are underrepresented, except IT and technologies. Even in health care, underrepresentation remains at the highest levels, the study found.

With population declining in the region by about 150,000 people over the past two decades and more job openings than unemployed workers to fill them, Durisky believes diversifying the workers entering STEM fields is key to a strong workforce and vibrant economy.

“If we could just have proportionate representation from minorities and women in the labor force, we could close the job gap by about a third, overnight,” Durisky says.

Team NEO meets with university and business leaders and Durisky says  the group exploring labor problems has evolved in the past six years, ever since Team NEO began publishing studies about the regional workforce.

“Data is just data. But if we can encourage a more robust way to think about the hard conversations we need to have as a community, I think that is a small win,” Durisky says.

Some of those hard conversations involve improving infrastructure and opportunities for those in inner city and rural areas, finding transportation for students and workers and providing high-speed internet for underserved areas and families who live within them.

Additionally, Durisky talks about engaging with young people about their passions earlier in life. He anecdotally talked about two conversations he has had with young people.

One boy expressed an interest in criminal justice. He asked the boy whether he had considered cyber security, a STEM field in high demand and with higher wages. No one had mentioned it to him, Durisky learned.

Similarly, he suggested to a girl who liked caring for her elderly grandparent that she consider a career in health care.

“How do we think about these in-demand careers that we know are so important? And then how do we intersect that with what people are passionate about and want to do?” Durisky asks.

It’s important for minorities and women to see someone like themselves in their fields, someone they can relate to, he says. If they have never met an engineer or heard of a certain career, how is a young person supposed to strive to pursue that field?

In the last few years, schools have  put a greater emphasis on STEM programs. Durisky highlighted as one positive step how Youngstown State University is working with the Mahoning Valley’s electric vehicle industry and educating the local workforce for the jobs projected to come. Such investments and programs are steps in the right direction, he says.

“We’re not going to just grow our way out of this all of a sudden overnight,” Durisky says. “We have to figure out a way to connect more people who are here to more jobs. I think that gets to the core of how do we take data like this and really start to think about a strategy. What do we need to do to be as impactful as we can to actually address these challenges?”

Team NEO, northeastern Ohio’s business and economic development lead agency, studies the business climate and meets regularly with the administrations of 14 regional institutions of higher education and business leaders.

The 18-county area in the study includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties and extends to Erie County to the northwest.