Without change, engineering equality may take 76 years or more

A new report from Georgetown and the APLU shows the immense gaps that exist in pay and opportunities for White, Asian, Black and Latinx STEM career seekers.
By: | June 8, 2021
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Despite a slight increase in the number of engineering degrees achieved by Black/African American and Latinx students over the past two decades, the two groups still lag severely when it comes to turning those into jobs in the field.

According to a report done by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, at its current pace it would take 76 years to balance positions with those held by White and Asian workers. That gap is most severe for Black individuals: an estimated 256 years to achieve racial equity.

“It shouldn’t take decades or centuries to ensure diversity in the engineering workforce mirrors diversity in society,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “This report makes clear that Black and Latinx individuals are underrepresented and underpaid in the engineering workforce. It will take a comprehensive, committed, and innovative approach from employers and universities to close the gap.”

In its study Mission Not Accomplished: Unequal Opportunities and Outcomes for Black and Latinx Engineers, researchers highlighted that Whites and Asians not only hold a steep majority of those jobs (84%) but that Whites often earn more and get more lucrative opportunities than their colleagues.

The disparities cross more than racial lines. Approximately 1.6 million individuals work in engineering, but only 3% of those are Black/African American women or Latinx women.

Engineering degrees are effectively golden tickets to successful careers and earnings potential. According to CEW and APLU, those who graduate and pursue careers in the field earn 25% more to start than other graduates. Those who have specialized degrees can earn as much as 90% to 125% more.

“Having a career in engineering means you’ve made it,” said Anthony Carnevale, CEW Director and report lead author. “While it’s a marker of climbing the wage and status occupational pyramid, it’s also a social indicator of progress on racial and gender justice.”

Inside the numbers

But not all outcomes have been the same. For example, White and Asian engineers far outpace other degree holders (61-71%) in earnings, but Black and Latinx engineers only make between 15-18% more than other grads.

Perhaps the most striking statistic posed by the CEW and APLU was this: In order for Black and Latinx engineers to close the pay gap and get on track for a $90,000 starting salary, they often need to earn a graduate degree to get on level footing with White bachelor’s degree holders.

CEW and APLU researchers also note:

  • White and Asian men who possess doctorates earn more than men of other races and ethnicities with doctorates.
  • Black/African American and Latinx students tend to pursue civil engineering, which offers the lowest average earnings in the field ($76,000).
  • White engineers between 50 and 75 earn the most of any group, averaging $117,000 per year.
  • Black/African American and Latinx engineers earn $6,000 less annually than the total engineering population.

One bit of good news for Latinx degree seekers is that there has been a 13% increase in engineering graduates over a 20-year period starting in 1990. For Black students, however, the news isn’t good. They’ve remained at 4% over that same span.

Women also have struggled to make inroads in the field. Women today represent 16% of the engineering workforce; in 1990, it was 15%. They also earn less than men on average ($90,000 to $82,000), and the CEW and APLU notes that is because many choose to take their degrees into education pursuits rather than remain in the industry.

Spreading the word and the wealth

So, what can be done to change the dynamic?

“If we want to see more underrepresented students and women in engineering jobs, we will need fresh approaches to recruitment and a stronger focus on enrolling, counseling, graduating these students, and seeing that they obtain good jobs that pay equitable wages,” said CEW Chief Economist and report co-author Nicole Smith. “Hiring diverse faculty will also help.”

That transformation might need to start quite a bit sooner than college. There is a belief that students of color, girls and women aren’t as interested in pursuing STEM fields as men, but STEM workers who were surveyed disagreed. According to the report, Black and Latinx STEM employees say the disparities are not because of a lack of interest but because of discrimination. They say access is an obstacle in both high schools and colleges.

Researchers say that legislative efforts often have fallen short of swinging the balance of equity in STEM fields. They say continual dialogue around pay disparity among the groups is important. They also note that supports such as counseling, mentoring and degree decision-making for Black and Latinx engineering students be increased given their greater propensity to either not enter programs or drop out of them. White students also have far more opportunities to pursue engineering fields because the schools they attend on average offer programs, while larger percentages of institutions that Black and Latinx students attend don’t.

Smith, McPherson and others say, don’t discount the role of educators, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, in being able to inspire young students to pursue those career paths.

“Starting with recruiting, admission, counseling staff, and, most importantly, faculty, we need to redouble our efforts to make the engineering classroom more welcoming and diverse,” authors said in the report’s conclusion. “Faculty representation affects behaviors and interactions on college campuses, and can also affect perceptions of those whom the academic institutions view as worthwhile, while shaping students’ viewpoints of what is possible in learning and the world of work.”