Why African Americans May be Left Out of the 21st Century Job Market

Usually when we hear people say someone has a "good job," traditional jobs like lawyer or accountant come to mind.  Indeed, these have been attractive and lucrative careers in the past, but are they the careers of the 21st Century?  According to US News's "100 Best Jobs" of 2013 list, those careers don't even crack the top 30, coming in at #35 and #36, respectively. 

Analyzing "the number of openings, the chance to advance and be professionally fulfilled, and the ability to meet financial obligations," US News concluded that careers in science and technology are the "best jobs," with the top 15 being in one of those fields.  As a professional in the atmospheric sciences,  I see how extreme weather like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and changing climate affect society. As a result, President Obama continues to tout a new “green” economy built on renewable energy, climate change solutions, and sustainability.  This economy will require a new generation of professionals that understand changing weather patterns, climate science, wind and solar engineering, environmental sustainability, and mitigation-adaptation strategies,

U​nfortu​nately, many African Americans won’t be prepared for them due to woeful under-representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.  According to The National Science Foundation, only 9.9% of master's degrees in STEM fields were awarded to Blacks as compared to 63.2% of Whites.  Surprisingly, this is an improvement. In 2001, Blacks made up only 8.6% of STEM-field master's degrees. While we are headed in the right direction, the number of Blacks in STEM fields is far too small. Fortunately, there are some things we as a community can do to improve the situation.

Change Family Perceptions. ​Because I was a good student, my family always assumed that I'd be a lawyer, doctor or businessman.  But now that we know that these aren't the careers of the future, we can encourage our youth to pursue STEM careers, instead.  We can develop our children's interest in these fields at an early age by taking them to museums, doing fun, at-home experiments with them, taking them to the library and watching movies and documentaries that expose them to the possibilities of these careers. 

Connect Students with Funding Sources. Money is a major concern for  Black students trying to make it to college, let alone for a STEM degree. But there are many federally-funded programs like the NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation or the Diversity Climate Network which offer funding to attract minority students to STEM fields. Find these resources and take advantage of them.

Con​nect Students with Me​ntors. Sometimes getting into STEM fields is only half the battle.  Due to under-representation and limited access, several minority and female colleagues told me that feeling isolated at work was a big hindrance to their advancement and development early in their careers. At times, you may be the “only” one like you in a classroom or meeting. I understand this all too well. As the recently-elected president of the American Meteorological Society, I'm only the 2nd African American to hold this position and am still the only African American with a doctorate degree from the well-known Florida State University Department of Meteorology.  

But I've had help. When I was a young graduate student, my mentor, Dr. Warren Washington, an internationally noted atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, took the time to provide me with nuggets of advice that Dr. Washington imparted to me have shaped my career. He urged me to establish myself as a science expert first before getting pulled in directions that young Black scientists often do. Now, like Dr. Warren, I'm a White House honoree for my work. When students connect with mentors and communities that can encourage them​ i​n school a​nd throughout their careers, it ca​n make all the difference. 

In 2013, it's a shame that we're still only celebrating the first and second African Americans to achieve leadership success in STEM fields and that we continue to lag so far behind our counterparts.  Now is the time to do something about it. 

Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is Professor at the University of Georgia (UGA) and Director of its Atmospheric Sciences Program. He is the President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), only the 2nd African-American to hold this office. Follow him on Twitter: @DrShepherd2013.