June is an exciting time of year. It marks the end of the school year for our youth. For many, vacation and family time lies ahead. It also signals a time of new beginnings for those graduating from high school, college or a university. I recently had the pleasure of attending two high school graduations – one for my nephew and one for my sister-in-law. It was a reminder of youthful exuberance and the sheer energy that radiates from the students about to embark on a future full of opportunities. The experience brought back memories of my own high school graduation and the optimism and hope I had for my own future – one I felt was filled with promise and full of possibilities.
As a young Latina graduating from high school almost 35 years ago, I remember believing that I could be anything I set my mind to. At the time, I was determined to go to law school and become a civil rights attorney. I felt fully prepared to focus on my higher education and take advantage of all it had to offer in order to build a future for myself, and ultimately work towards a better future for the Latino community. I think many young people today feel the same as I did back then. Unfortunately for today’s Latino graduates, far too many are not fully prepared to seize available post-graduation opportunities and many are not choosing to seek a higher education or get training in those fields with the greatest job prospects.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields continue to drive innovation and provide more jobs than companies can fill – especially here in California. Success in STEM-related areas of study can lead to increased job opportunities in two leading growth sectors – medicine and technology. It is unfortunate that our Latino students are not entering into STEM-related fields in the numbers proportionate to their representation within the state’s overall population. Yet medicine and technology are two areas that show tremendous job growth projections and high earnings potential.
According to a recent Addeco report, approximately 271,000 graduates a year earn a degree within a STEM field, but there are currently 277,000 job vacancies (at all levels) in STEM fields – and the gap is only predicted to grow. In terms of medicine, California is predicted to need an estimated 8,243 additional primary care physicians by 2030. Yet, Latinos continue to lag even farther behind other minorities in getting STEM degrees. In fact, in 2013, Latinos represented only nine percent of total STEM degree and certificate recipients. Even at that low rate, according to a 2014 USA Today study, universities graduate Latino computer science students at twice the rate that leading tech companies hire them. Current data also shows that Latinos make up less than five percent of the technology workforce in Silicon Valley and only five percent of physicians in the state. These percentages are vastly lower than the state’s population makeup, of which Latinos account for nearly 40%.
This is simply unacceptable. We need to do more. We need to get young people involved in STEM programs early on in their education so that they start getting the training they need, build an interest in the field, and become aware of the opportunities associated with STEM-related careers. We can’t fault students who don’t seek degrees in fields they know nothing about or feel are out of their reach. Their education needs to start at a young age to truly instill the necessary knowledge, self-esteem, confidence and perseverance to know that anything really is possible. We also need to do more to ensure that those that do graduate with a STEM degree are actually pursuing and being hired for careers in the medical and technology fields.
I’m often reminded about how lucky I was to have parents that instilled in me the importance of education and the drive to do anything I put my mind to. It’s the reason I am where I am today. But there are many young people, young Latinos especially, that do not receive a primary and secondary education which prepares them adequately to pursue a higher education in STEM. This is why I am so proud that the Castellano Family Foundation is taking this issue seriously and continues to provide grant funding to local programs in Santa Clara County dedicated to STEM.
These programs include the José Valdés Math Institute, which offers both middle-school and high-school students a unique, math-intensive program over 7 weeks each summer; the Mesa Schools Program at SJSU, which assists students with college and career exploration workshops and site visits to expose students to college and STEM careers; and the Joseph George Elementary School STEM Workshop, which provides 25-30 Latino students with hands-on math and science experiences, tutoring, and mentoring to promote their academic success and college readiness. These programs are essential because they are empowering our young Latino population early, are getting them interested in STEM, and providing them with skills needed to pursue a STEM career path.
We need to do more to help all of our young people succeed. It is important for all of us to be involved, ensuring our young people have access to every opportunity. The technology, innovation, and healthcare sectors are fueling both economic and job growth in the United States and California and it is estimated there will be a need for an additional one million STEM professionals by 2022. Our young Latinos should be poised to seize these opportunities and fill many of these positions. But this won’t happen unless there is an even greater investment in our Latino youth.
That work starts today and includes all of us – nonprofits, foundations, educational systems and programs, local businesses and elected officials. Ultimately, the community must come together to ensure that all our young Latino graduates have the opportunity to participate in a job market within leading growth sectors of our economy. After all, with the demographic trends in California, our Latino youth are our future. Affording them the opportunity to flourish in STEM-related fields will help the state economically, will help ensure a more diverse workforce in the state, and will ultimately improve the lives of all Californians.