The STEM workforce (science, technology, engineering and math) is growing rapidly in the U.S. But many groups, including Black and Hispanic workers, are underrepresented. This is particularly true in engineering, where women too are often underrepresented.
While opportunities for careers continue to grow, engineering programs struggle to attract these underrepresented groups. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects significant increases in engineering jobs in the decades ahead, but the path to greater diversity is unclear.
Drawing from the context of infectious diseases as a timely example, experts reference a critical ratio at which herd immunity takes over and suppresses the transmission of the disease through networks of people. Is the underrepresentation of minority groups in engineering akin to a disease? Are their signals that spread like a contagion throughout society, creating a belief that engineering is only for certain groups of people? Is there a critical ratio (or a critical mass) at which this problem could be solved?
Evidence suggests that the answer to these questions is "yes." Many experts reference the importance of mentors and role models who are from underrepresented groups themselves who can guide the next generation. But this kind of problem presents a "chicken and egg" dilemma because more underrepresented minority groups must enter the field of engineering to create such role models. As a result, the U.S. and other countries are trapped in a vicious cycle.
We believe that reaching a critical mass of role models is the most important path to breaking the cycle. Increasing diversity in graduate engineering programs in particular needs to be a key part of the strategy because people with graduate degrees, such as masters and PhDs, are often promoted more quickly to positions in which they have managerial or mentoring responsibilities for other employees. In other words, they can become the role models that are so important to breaking the cycle of underrepresentation in engineering.
Breaking the cycle would help level the playing field by opening doors for new and often high-paying jobs to underrepresented groups while feeding the demand organizations have for talent.
From the employer's perspective, many companies struggle to find workers with advanced skills to use data to analyze business problems and optimize decisionmaking. But the demand does not end with for-profit companies. Not-for-profit organizations need people who can tackle problems arising in health care, public safety, food distribution, poverty and many more areas.
Empirical evidence suggests that female students from underrepresented minority groups are often drawn to fields with opportunities for social impact. So why do so few choose engineering as a major? Perhaps it is because the connection between technical skills and societal impact is not obvious to casual observers.
Industrial engineering is a branch of engineering that offers one potential solution, where prospective students can see a direct connection between their studies, abilities and desire for societal impact.
Early work nearly two centuries ago focused on applying scientific principles to mass production in factories, and how to organize processes for designing and building new products. Over time it has advanced to create new approaches grounded in science, math and data, to address new challenges arising in industry sectors such as energy, health, robotics and transportation. Emerging topics in industrial engineering include humanitarian logistics for disaster response, disruption of human trafficking and addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizations like ours – the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) – help students discover opportunities to leverage their abilities in math, science and statistics to be successful in industrial engineering, operations research, analytics and related fields that emphasize quantitative reasoning and critical thinking.
But this only happens when such a discovery is made, and many students are not aware that such a multidisciplinary field exists, or that they may have the skills to be successful in engineering graduate studies.
To reach herd immunity, we need all mentors, parents, teachers and friends to rally students to consider industrial engineering graduate program opportunities. By doing so, they can use their quantitative skills and scientific curiosity to tackle some of society's greatest challenges.
Elena Gerstmann, Ph.D, serves as executive director of INFORMS, the largest association for the decision and data sciences. Brian Denton, Ph.D, served as the 2017 INFORMS president. He is a professor in and chair of the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan.