by Brandon Paykamian
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation last month requiring the state’s secretary of higher education to develop guidelines for colleges and universities to identify and address “cultural barriers” keeping many students of color and women out of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.
The order took effect amid an ongoing national discussion about a lack of diversity in the current tech workforce, where multiple researchers have noted little progress in addressing the underrepresentation of non-white and non-male workers over the last few years.
“Over the next decade, demand for STEM jobs is expected to increase at twice the rate of all other occupations,” New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges said in an email to Government Technology. “In order to ready our workforce, New Jersey’s next generation of thought leaders must reflect our rich diversity to further grow our state as an innovation hub in the years to come.”
Bridges’ working group was in the process of drafting its guidelines as of this week. Officials said the release date for those guidelines remains pending.
State Rep. Daniel Benson, a primary sponsor of the bill that created the directive, said those guidelines will represent a “necessary first step” in a broader state effort to provide support programs for underrepresented students in STEM studies.
“Women today make up half of the current workforce, yet they still hold less than a quarter of all STEM jobs. Many groups including African-American, Hispanic and Asian populations make up only a quarter of the STEM workforce,” he said. “Identifying specific barriers to entry for underrepresented groups so they can be addressed, as well as ensuring that we are supporting women and minority students in STEM today, are critical components of this important undertaking.”
As part of the directive to create new guidelines, the secretary will establish a program to assist colleges and universities with recruiting and retaining women and students of color in STEM programs.
State Rep. Mila Jasey, another primary sponsor of the legislation, hopes the secretary’s recommendations will serve as a template for more concrete policies to diversify STEM-centric programs.
“Recruitment and retention issues should be addressed by modifying introductory courses that ‘weed out’ certain students and providing early academic support prior to and during the first semester and year of college,” she said of potential policies at universities and colleges.
While a handful of states and higher education institutions have launched initiatives to tackle the underrepresentation problem, Jasey said it remains “a longstanding issue that we as a society have struggled to address.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women remain largely boxed out of STEM-related jobs and leadership positions, despite some progress among women with advanced post-secondary degrees.
“In 1970, women were 8 percent of all STEM workers, which increased to 27 percent in 2019. Women made up 3 percent of the engineering field in 1970, which improved to 15 percent in 2019,” Jasey said, citing U.S. Census data. “While women and underrepresented groups have made strides in the workplace in STEM, it is clear that more work needs to be done.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment openings in computer science and other IT-related careers will grow by at least 11 percent by 2029.
Benson said ensuring diversity in STEM programs will widen the state’s talent pool in such professions.
“If New Jersey is going to compete in the 21st-century innovation economy, we need to be able to keep up with the growing demand in STEM fields,” he said. “That starts by making sure that every student, regardless of their background, can realize their full potential.”
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