Already underrepresented in STEM fields, pandemic-driven school closures and limitations are widening the gap for many minorities. Organizations must begin now to fill the gap so that they continue to have the diverse, STEM-skilled talent needed for the workplace of tomorrow.
It’s not just educators who are reflecting on the last year of school closures and faulty remote learning systems with alarm. Many corporate recruiters and talent scouts are also horrified. They’re discovering that minority students have – as often happens – borne the brunt of the disruption, and that many have vanished from the system entirely.
This is a particularly poignant loss when it comes to STEM fields. Already historically underrepresented, women and minorities have fallen further behind. Suspended enrichment programs, cancelled supplemental training camps, and postponed opportunities to visit potential colleges have left learners and those who would hire them at a competitive disadvantage. Here, some of the challenges and potential organization-level solutions to this issue will be discussed.
Making up momentum
According to Bellwether Education Partners, some three million minority students are currently missing from the nation’s school systems. When in-person learning shut down in March of 2020, these students didn’t make a smooth leap to remote learning. In many cases, they lacked the devices, wi-fi bandwidth, and adult support to sustain daily remote learning attendance. As a result, they’ve essentially been “on break” for over a year, slamming the brakes on their learning journey and potentially leaving them behind their peers for the rest of their lives.
For corporations that care, this is an opportunity to reach deep into local communities and help students make up for lost time. For a number of reasons, in many areas private organizations are moving faster at connecting with at-risk learners. Looking for non-educational connections to students in need and historically underprivileged groups is a chance to shine a light on the possibilities of a new path and career choices that students may not have felt would ever be within their grasp. By being present, giving thoughtfully, and engaging where the need is intense, firms can put themselves front-and-center with a pool of talent that might otherwise never enter the recruitment pipeline.
Building a shared vision of a better future
A part of this kind of differentiated outreach is the chance to build a shared vision of a better future with target communities. Businesses can talk a big talk about “investing in our communities” and “spending locally for global impact” but creating homegrown talent that includes ALL students is a spectacular way to walk the talk on boosting STEM participation and educational opportunities among minority groups.
Executing this type of plan required buy-in from all levels of the organization. It’s not just about C-suite sponsorship, although executive leaders certainly set the tone for their organizations. Leadership has to be able to communicate the mandate through all levels, and especially to frontline staff who are making sponsorship, recruitment, and hiring decisions.
What worked, pre-pandemic, for recruitment and outreach is simply not going to yield the same results as it once did. Networks and pipelines are broken and many programs may never reopen. As a result, corporations have the chance to reinvent how they connect with talent and potentially gain access to groups outside of their typical pools.
Thus, enthusiastic and repeated communication of new tactics and opportunities is going to be essential. Further, this can’t just be a one-way “push” out via email. Leaders and managers should speak to employees in person whenever practical (while respecting local health protocols, of course). This allows the conveyance of not just the substance of the vision, but the emotional weight of it as well.
This emotional weight, of course, should be backed with business links. In this way, everyone involved can see that it’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing to do if the company is going to have the key talent and trained workers that are needed in the future. Labor shortages are already dire in many parts of the country, and presenting an opportunity to solve the talent shortage AND multiple societal issues at the same time can win over many stubborn minds on the path to a more diverse talent pool.
Creating corporate scholarship programs to fill the gap
A final, unique option for businesses to pursue is creating special corporate scholarship programs. These can provide serious momentum for students who might otherwise find themselves shut out of key opportunities, and also provide businesses with tax benefits, PR wins, and credibility within their local communities.
The challenge, of course, is effectively managing the scholarship program. Businesses need to be clear about what skills and behaviors the scholarship will encourage. For example, is coding a priority, or biotechnical interests? Will trade schools, code camps, or HBCUs be the targeted learning environment for recipients after high school? How will selected students be supported outside of the classroom by the firm to ensure scholarship recipients are blessed by the gift and not set up to fail?
These aren’t necessarily easy or straightforward conversations. Working with scholarship advisors, or establishing a partnership with key learning institutions, can help. Alternatively, firms can mix their scholarship committee boards with members of the internal diversity council and the recruiting team, to ensure that incentives match up with future needs in a way that’s a win-win for recipients and their future employers.
The past year has been a unique blockade on progress for many minority learners. To ensure these students aren’t permanently left behind…and that future talent pipelines in STEM fields aren’t continually bereft of diverse talent… firms need to take action.
This action may look different from what would have been appropriate even a year ago. It could mean different, and deeper, partnerships with the local community that reach further down into the educational chain. It could mean retraining hiring managers and reframing hiring goals. Or, it may mean a chance to create a life-changing corporate scholarship program that benefits learners, firms, and the community at large. The most important thing, of course, it take action now, before this pandemic-driven gap becomes a permanent divide.