May 1, 2024 - Science

Exclusive: National strategy to build diverse STEM workforce unveiled

illustration of a person looking into a microscope and hands holding a beaker on a background made of dollar bills and science notes

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

An alliance of businesses, governments, educational institutions and philanthropies will unveil a national strategy at the White House today to add 20 million new workers in science and related fields from historically excluded and underrepresented groups to the U.S workforce by 2050.

Why it matters: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs are projected to grow faster than other occupations and are typically higher-paying. Building and leveraging that talent is a top priority for the U.S., China and other countries racing to advance AI, quantum computing, biotech and other fields.

  • A survey of STEM workers last year found 60% believe China will be the global leader in science and technology in five years.

"Equity in STEMM is critical to achieving the excellence and eminence required to expand the nation's scientific power and remain competitive," the authors of a report outlining the new strategy write. (They expand the definition of STEM to include the medical field — the second "M" — which has a "long history of inequities.")

  • The STEMM Opportunity Alliance (SOA) of more than 200 companies, including 3M, Uber and Microsoft, higher education institutions, federal and state governments and philanthropic groups devised the strategy.
  • Alliance members have said they will put more than $2 billion in total into nearly 350 new and existing programs and other commitments that will support the strategy.
  • "The jobs are changing. We're building factories of the future with new technologies and talent planning is different than it was even five years ago," says Michael Stroik, vice president of community relations at 3M, adding that the strategy offers a data- and research-driven blueprint for the company's work building a talent pipeline.
  • Stephanie Rodriguez, who developed the Department of Labor's Youth Employment Works strategy, will be the alliance's first director.

Zoom in: The alliance's 2050 goal for the U.S. workforce hinges on "decades of concerted, coordinated action beginning now," the authors write.

  • The strategy focuses on five areas, including addressing the shortage of pre-K-12 STEMM educators and diversifying that workforce, ensuring higher education STEMM programs are inclusive and accessible, and removing barriers for underrepresented groups to enter and remain in the STEMM workforce.
  • Diverse groups include those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, geography, religion, sexual orientation, and more.

The strategy lays out nearly two dozen key metrics, including:

  • doubling the number of people from historically excluded and marginalized communities in teacher training programs by 2035;
  • cutting the higher education enrollment gap for people in those groups in half by 2030;
  • and investing $15 billion in research infrastructure and capacity building at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other institutions that serve underrepresented groups.

The big picture: "The reality is if we are to maintain our leadership [in STEMM], we have to really pay attention to not just the dollars [in legislation]... but the human infrastructure needed to carry out that kind of work," says Travis York, who leads diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which spearheads the alliance.

  • "We should be thinking about how do we actually preserve and use to our advantage the incredible richness of diverse perspectives, cultures and backgrounds that we have that other countries simply don't," he says.

Between the lines: The strategy is being unveiled as some corporations back away from diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that are facing criticism.

  • "The DEI backlash that we're seeing across many states has placed a lot of our partners in trickier landscapes" than when the alliance started in 2022, York says.
  • "But that means SOA's work is even more important," he says, adding that many organizations are stepping forward.

What they're saying: The long-term strategy — which could conceivably span seven administrations in the White House — is "a brilliant move," Kei Koizumi, a principal deputy director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Axios. OSTP is co-hosting the strategy's launch event.

  • "STEMM excellence and unity are long games that we need to play together," Koizumi said.
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