Not just a matter of degrees: Other pathways to STEM careers

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow called attention to the fact that “few women and minorities are getting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees, although STEM jobs are multiplying and pay more than many other careers.”

These numbers are distressing, as is the persistent lack of diversity in the tech industry. Google made news last year when it disclosed its workforce demographics and openly admitted that the company is “not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.” Women represent 17 percent of Google’s workforce and hold almost half of the company’s non-tech jobs (which tend to pay less than tech positions). And although Asians comprise 30 percent of Google workers, just 3 percent of Googlers are Hispanic and only 2 percent are black.

Addressing this dynamic will undoubtedly require investments in STEM education at the P-12 and postsecondary levels. However, a focus on increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by people of color and white women may not be the most efficient path forward. As my colleague Jonathan Rothwell has shown, many STEM jobs that pay well require some level of postsecondary training but not necessarily a four-year degree.

Rising demand for tech workers has prompted a surge in shorter-term tech-oriented training programs that help people transition into careers in the tech industry in a matter of months, not years.

One such organization is General Assembly (GA). The GA approach relies heavily on learning by doing led by instructors with real-world work experience. GA provides full-time and part-time courses in web development, user experience design, product management, and other fields as well as one-day classes, weekend workshops and online learning opportunities to help people familiarize themselves with key topics in tech.

The full-time courses aim to get individuals who want to move into the tech industry ready for the job market. These classes require a high level of commitment but no prior knowledge. Monday through Friday for 10 plus weeks, students spend the day engaged in hands-on learning projects that, by the end of the course, form a portfolio of work they can use to land their first job. Field trips, speakers and opportunities to meet working professionals supplement in-class activities and give students a better sense of what careers are available to people with their training.

GA’s full-time courses cost upwards of several thousand dollars, which can pose a significant barrier for some. Well aware of the tech industry’s lack of diversity, GA teamed up with Google, Microsoft, PayPal, and others to create the Opportunity Fund, which provides scholarships for students from underrepresented groups who demonstrate financial need. The fund launched as a pilot last spring with $170,000 and hopefully will be expanded in future rounds.

Tech’s diversity problem isn’t going away anytime soon, but short-term training programs like those offered by GA—when paired with financial assistance—can move the industry in the right direction. At the same time, targeted outreach to potential students in underrepresented groups can open up pathways to careers that pay well and require less in-class time than a traditional college degree.