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Integrating STEMployable Skills at HBCUs

It was recently reported by the U.S. Department of Labor that the overall number of job openings in the United States reached a 15-year high. It was also reported that, in the next ­five to 10 years, there will be millions of new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs available in the United States.

The massive increase in STEM jobs will depend largely on the production of novel technologies, new industries and a retiring workforce population. Interestingly, the prediction of new jobs is also met with the sobering prognosis that ­filling new STEM jobs will be difficult due to the number of graduates who will be ill-prepared for the opportunities and challenges of the contemporary work environment.

Dr. Lawrence O. FlowersDr. Lawrence O. Flowers

Not surprisingly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African-Americans account for only 5 percent of the STEM labor force, while members of the White community account for over 70 percent of the STEM labor force. Given these morose descriptive statistics, as well as national mandates for improving diversity in the STEM pathway, I presented the need for minority-serving institutions to aggressively incorporate career-centered strategies to enhance undergraduate education during a panel discussion at the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

Moreover, in October 2016, I co-edited a book titled Advancing Educational Outcomes in STEM at HBCUs, where we explore sustainable strategies designed to improve the academic and professional success of HBCU students. This current article expounds on those topics and highlights the importance of graduating HBCU students who have pertinent STEM-based skills and are ready to enter the American workplace after commencement proceedings.

I conceptualized and trademarked the term STEMployable, which is a conceptual framework that provides the organizational structure for understanding the indispensable pro­ficiencies, quali­fications, knowledge, and relevant experiences required to obtain a job in a STEM field. Moreover, STEMployable skills refer to an understanding of discipline-specific job-related tasks and an understanding of effective marketing skills to gain employment.

It should be noted that the issue of preparing HBCU students for STEM employment is complex and must involve engagement from administrators, student affairs professionals, faculty, students and corporate partners. Understandably, ­financial burdens placed on penurious STEM departments at public and private HBCUs make substantive career-based improvements to the research and pedagogical infrastructure difficult, but not impossible.

In order to execute the recommendations proposed in this article, HBCUs are encouraged to pursue funding opportunities with national agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Education (ED), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as well as in the private sector.

STEM education research literature portends that effective career development pedagogical practices should focus on increasing hands-on learning approaches, connecting course concepts to societal issues, enhancing critical-thinking skills and scienti­fic communication skills, and designing learning modules and training experiences that validate students’ understanding of research methodologies. A major contention of this article is that STEM career development training must not merely consist of disparate actions on HBCU campuses, rather preparation for a STEM career must be seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the educational curriculum.

To that end, the design of precise, measurable, departmental, and course career-related objectives is paramount. To enhance the relevancy of science and engineering courses in the 21st century, faculty may ­ find it bene­ficial to utilize information from current STEM job descriptions from actual companies when designing course objectives and course activities.

Furthermore, the formation of strong partnerships with STEM-based companies and current science and engineering professionals is essential for HBCUs. Equally, the establishment of annual STEM career fairs in which local and national companies visit HBCU campuses to discuss job opportunities or to discuss particular hiring qualities will increase interaction between companies and students seeking employment.

The development of new courses designed to educate students on the plethora of careers in their specific disciplines will considerably expand students’ career choices beyond the health professions. STEMployable skills also take into account an understanding of scienti­fic ethics and an awareness that employers value high-character, collaborative workers with an exceptional and professional work ethic. A 2015 survey conducted by an international staffing ­ firm listed soft skills such as displaying a positive attitude and demonstrating integrity, not job experience and educational accomplishments, as the most desirable traits of job applicants.

Since their inception, HBCUs have provided high-quality educational environments for college students from all backgrounds.

At this critical time in our nation’s economic history, coupled with staggering employment inequality, HBCUs must now evolve and find a way to successfully integrate STEMployable skills into the educational curriculum.

Dr. Lawrence O. Flowers is department chair and associate professor of biology at Livingstone College.

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