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STEM talent exists in the South, but investment is appallingly lacking

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Earlier this month, sports and culture news site The Undefeated published a story about NASA mathematician Clyde Foster. His calculations and computations helped launch rockets into orbit during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era of the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. For over three decades, Foster worked for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In that role, he actively recruited hundreds of black students into the space program. In addition, Foster helped found the computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University.

His “quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound,” wrote Michael Fletcher in the story.

Foster’s intelligence and dedication put people into space during one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. He created hundreds of desirable jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for black Alabamians. Foster’s legacy of leveraging black talent in the STEM fields cannot be overstated. Industries desire the skills associated with STEM degrees because they are needed to design, produce, and extract the materials, goods, and services that make up the “traded sector” of the economy, which comprises everything traded outside of the region (from raw materials and algorithms, to cars and software) as opposed to skills in the non-traded sector that are related to industries that serve local residents (such as schools, construction, healthcare).

If the number of black-owned firms was proportionate to the percentage of college-educated residents who are black, 720 more businesses in Birmingham would be black-owned.

Yet more than 60 years after Foster started at NASA, racial disparities in employment in STEM-related fields persist. There are more than 4,000 such trade sector firms in Alabama’s Birmingham metro area, including businesses that tackle manufacturing, information, finance, and insurance, and professional, scientific, and technical services, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs. Yet only 3%—a measly 135—are black-owned. If we assume black STEM graduates have the skills required to start a business (only 39% of business owners had a college degree between 2007-2012), we should look to them to fill the gap. If the number of black-owned firms was proportionate to the percentage of college-educated residents who are black, 720 more businesses in Birmingham would be black-owned.

Trade Industry All Firms Black-Owned Firms Percentage Black-Owned Underrepresentation based on education (rounded)
Manufacturing 815 10 1.23% 163
Information 197 17 8.63% 25
Finance and insurance 742 54 7.28% 104
Professional, scientific, and technical services 2268 54 2.38% 428
Total 4022 135 3.36% 720

Source: The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs

New strategies are needed to counter the racial disparities in business ownership, especially in the traded sectors, where black people are already primed to fill these roles. By ignoring this pool of talent, we are making Birmingham and the country as a whole less competitive and productive. We can start by investing in an overlooked source of emerging black talent: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Alabama is home to 14 HBCUs—more than any other state—and nearly a third of their graduating students are ready to contribute to this growing sector of the economy. In the 2016-2017 academic year, STEM and business-related fields comprised 31% of degrees at Alabama’s HBCUs, according to data from the national dataset, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Institution Total STEM or business degrees Total degrees Percent STEM or business degrees
Alabama A & M University 199 453 43.9
Alabama State University 220 743 29.6
Bishop State Community College 34 269 12.6
Gadsden State Community College 137 638 21.5
H Councill Trenholm State Community College 60 172 34.9
J. F. Drake State Community and Technical College 48 98 49.0
Lawson State Community College-Birmingham Campus 44 263 16.7
Miles College 104 223 46.6
Oakwood University 110 364 30.2
Selma University 7 23 30.4
Shelton State Community College 92 494 18.6
Stillman College 47 104 45.2
Talladega College 47 103 45.6
Tuskegee University 213 453 47.0
Total 1362 4400 31.0

Source: IPEDS 2016-2017

Note: STEM or business field is defined as biological and biomedical sciences, computer and information sciences, engineering and engineering technologies, mathematics and statistics, physical sciences and science technologies, and business, management, marketing, and related support services. Total includes bachelor’s and associate’s degrees.

Across the country, the share of STEM jobs has expanded significantly, with STEM employment increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million from 1990 to 2018 (a 79% increase). Data suggests that this trend will continue, particularly in comparison to non-STEM positions. STEM jobs are expected to grow by 13% from 2017 to 2027, as opposed to 9% for non-STEM work. HBCUs are well situated to meet the demands of a STEM economy.

There’s no scarcity of black talent available in Birmingham; what’s lacking in Alabama is a mindset the likes of Clyde Foster. While the STEM field has abundant employment opportunities, we must also support those who seek to start their own ventures. Within its HBCU student bodies and surrounding communities, Alabama already has infrastructure in place to promote entrepreneurship. Institutions in close proximity to Birmingham, such as Miles College and Stillman College, offer minors in entrepreneurship, while Alabama A&M runs the AAMU Center for Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Economic Development. The initiative works with businesses, investors, and other stakeholders to promote economic growth in the North Huntsville community, particularly in underrepresented communities.

STEM jobs are expected to grow by 13% from 2017 to 2027, as opposed to 9% for non-STEM work. HBCUs are well situated to meet the demands of a STEM economy.

HBCU talent can meet workforce demands if government and the private sector invest in programs that develop start-up businesses on campus.

As our society speeds toward the usage of transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, augmented reality, virtual reality, and blockchain, investing in black tech startup ventures that can quickly grow in size and profitability will help promote a more inclusive economy, create multi-generational wealth among black families and validate the overlooked and devalued production of STEM graduates at HBCUs. The continued success of HBCUs is contingent upon our investments in programs and ventures that promote a more inclusive economy.

For instance, Opportunity HUB (owned and operated by co-author Rodney Sampson), is an Atlanta based multi-campus co-working space, pre-accelerator, and incubator that works with HBCUs to support tech entrepreneurs. OHUB works with more than 4,000 student members and early professionals at 319 colleges and universities, including 100 HBCUs. Yet the majority of the HBCUs don’t offer courses that teach students how to be successful entrepreneurs, or programs that support student ventures such as startup accelerators and pitch competitions. Few initiatives help students commercialize their work.

While our country is no longer facing the urgent demands of the Cold War, remedying the racial disparities in business ownership is no less important. As Foster recruited and cultivated the talent of black students at NASA, we must also invest in STEM education in HBCUs, in Birmingham and beyond.

Allison Hardebeck and Marissa Marshall provided excellent research assistance for this post. 

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