The need to diversify the federal STEM workforce is like writing on the wall. As an increasing number of STEM doctorates are awarded to international students who eventually return--with their STEM education and skill set-- to their home countries, it’s imperative that the U.S. continues to train a domestic STEM workforce able to fill jobs in the federal sector. In 2012, Hispanics comprised 17 percent of the U.S. population, yet a mere 4 percent were awarded STEM doctorates. The numbers are more discouraging for another underrepresented minority: Native Americans. In 2012 there were 35,260 STEM doctoral degrees awarded to American students, of those degrees 0.3 percent were awarded to American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Without a concerted effort to diversify the group of students earning and using their PhDs in the U.S., America’s competitive edge in the STEM fields will be lost. This is where investing to increase diversity in STEM degrees, especially for underrepresented minorities, is essential. 

By 2020, Hispanics will comprise 29 percent of the population. Yet, currently they comprise only 6.5 percent of the STEM workforce overall and 10 percent of the federal STEM workforce. The number for Native Americans is even lower at only 0.4 percent of the federal STEM workforce.  

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These shockingly low numbers have nothing to do with the availability of STEM jobs—there are twice as many STEM jobs in the U.S. than there are qualified professionals to fill them—and everything to do with creating access and inclusion. A number of agencies have come to the realization that tapping into our nation’s rapidly changing demographics to create home grown STEM leaders makes for a more efficient, productive, and sympathetic federal workforce that is reflective of the population they serve . 

The National Institutes of Health, for example, has been a proactive leader among federal agencies in their work to diversify the biomedical workforce as a whole, including intramural researchers in their own federal labs. In addition to their perennial support of university programs and organizations serving underrepresented minority students, the NIH conducted internal investigations of their past funding mechanisms and is working hard to correct the significant racial disparities that were revealed. Accordingly, NIH recently invested nearly $31 million in a multi-pronged strategy “Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH Funded Workforce.”   

The Department of Energy launched the Minorities in Energy Initiative in 2013, which includes an Industry Partners Network made of energy-focused companies and trade associations leveraging their professional networks, expertise, and the financial resources that will empower minorities to compete for work and business opportunities in the energy sector. 

There are also councils aimed at breaking down barriers of employment for minorities such as the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Hispanic Council on Federal Employment which works year-round to provide recommendations and feedback on STEM diversity.

But there is still more work to be done. The number of federal agencies investing in these efforts needs to increase significantly in order to enhance their visibility within communities of color and develop strategic partnerships with organizations that work with underrepresented minority STEM students.  

More often than not, federal STEM careers are not a known or widely considered pathway for STEM students, especially in underrepresented minority (URM) communities. In general, STEM students are greatly influenced by their professors and mentors, who many times inadvertently fail to expose their students to the breadth of STEM professions in industry or federal agencies. This is particularly true for URM students—many of whom are first-generation college students or STEM students—and who don’t have the opportunity to have a broader discussion about career opportunities in STEM.  

I am now the president of an organization that brings mentoring in STEM full circle for Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans. At SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), science professionals mentor college students, who in turn mentor high school and elementary students interested in STEM activities. The organization’s national model has grown over the last 40 years in ways the small group of founding scientists in the early 1970s couldn’t have imagined. The SACNAS membership base is now more than 6,000 strong, touching about 20,000 STEM advocates nationally. SACNAS’ annual conference is geared toward providing college students with the type of mentors they need, as well as the tools necessary to pursue careers in STEM. Our organization provides immediate pathways to diversify STEM by connecting employers with the largest multicultural and multidisciplinary talent pool in the country. All of this is very good news for students of color and federal agencies who don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to tap into a new pipeline of talent.  

This year, we are gathering in Washington, D.C. and our choice in venue was a conscious one. We will be on the national stage calling on all sectors of the federal government to wake up to the lack of diversity in STEM. This year the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and USDA have all stepped forward to deeply engage in the conference and open up the dialogue with minority students about employment.  

But we can’t change the fabric of the federal workforce with the efforts of a just a few. As a nation, we are facing the pressing realities of climate change, increasingly drastic environmental disasters, health disparities, public health crises, and energy security. Training and employing a diverse federal STEM workforce is the key to finding better solutions, because we know that innovation happens when diverse perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge are all at the table. It’s time for our government to unlock the potential of thousands of American students and professionals and make diversity in STEM a major priority—not only for the future of the field, but for the future of the nation as a whole.

Montaño is president of Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and technical staff member for the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.