Quality STEM Jobs: Who Is Getting Them?

We’ve got some STEMpathy if you’re kind of over stories about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, and the education and training required to get them. But there’s a good reason for all (or at least most) of those stories: employment in STEM occupations tends to be higher-wage and higher-growth than other occupations. With startlingly low economic mobility for young people in the South, STEM jobs could provide new pathways into stable careers.

In many Southern metros, STEM employment makes up a significant portion of the workforce. According to Bloomberg Business, in Austin, Huntsville, Raleigh, Durham, the figure is at least 10 percent:

STEM jobs

Source: Bloomberg Business

These jobs typically pay better than many occupations, and they are more likely to have the characteristics that allow for economic security and wealth building, like paid sick and family leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts. The gap between median pay in STEM occupations and non-STEM occupations is substantial in many Southern metros:

STEM pay

Source: Bloomberg Business

The prevalence of these jobs in certain areas is not based just on luck; they are areas that have seen sustained investment in innovation and education over time. From Bloomberg Business descriptions of Huntsville and Durham:

Like many high-tech locales, Huntsville owes its 21st century economy to an initial burst of funding for government research. It was a town of 16,000 residents working in cotton mills and on watercress farms when, in 1950, the U.S. Army relocated a team of rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal, a local installation that produced chemical munitions during World War II. In the decades that followed, NASA designed, assembled, and tested the rockets that put the first men on the moon. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of lesser-known aerospace and defense companies have swarmed to Huntsville.


Durham, N.C., has a STEM labor force that’s 13.9 percent of all workers. Its biotech economy started with a sprawling research park that began to grow around the same time that Huntsville’s high-tech transformation was getting started.

The Bloomberg author notes that these jobs pay good salaries and those salaries support other draws-like good public schools, restaurants, and arts and entertainment that make the communities appealing to potential employers and potential workers.

Job growth doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s happening less and less through traditional industrial recruitment. STEM jobs are growing in the places where there’s been investment in the services, amenities, and institutions that support those sectors, particularly in areas with a highly educated workforce or the ability to attract one. Science and technology jobs also require particular skills and knowledge related to industries like IT, software development, designing, infrastructure solutions, etc., and people can accordingly acquire these skills by doing certification courses like Microsoft az 305, az 400, ai 900, and more. Attracting STEM jobs to consider you as a worthy employee may require more than a college degree.

These occupations are typically high-skill and require targeted training and education, but the majority are going to populations that are the most likely to connect with high-wage work anyway: white men. Women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. Women make up less than a third of all STEM employment in every Southern state:

STEM women

Source: IWPR’s Status of Women in the States

Southern cities that are seeking to take advantage of STEM job growth must make sure that the pathways into those jobs are strong and equitable. We have to consider what barriers, both real and perceived, are preventing women and people of color from pursuing those careers in greater numbers.

As the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research found, women are significantly less likely than men to get degrees in STEM fields, and the proportion of women receiving associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased between 2001 and 2009:

STEM gender

Source: IWPR

Though these data show a significant gender gap, community colleges are an important part of the pathway to STEM careers for both women and men, as detailed in an article this week by Lane Florsheim in Marie Claire magazine. More than half of people who receive bachelor’s degrees or higher in a STEM field completed some of their coursework at a community college, including 55 percent of women (63 percent of women with young children) and 44 percent of men.

Florsheim cites research that suggests community colleges are often more accessible and inviting to women interested in these fields:

… a recent study by two Iowa State University researchers found that women at community colleges reported a friendlier atmosphere in STEM-related classes than at four-year colleges. “It is just such a global community,” one student said of her community college experience. The researchers found that similarity in backgrounds and lifestyles made women feel more comfortable stepping into leadership roles in activities and assignments. Strong advising and support from faculty also marked a major difference. Since so many students transfer out, they often work closely with guidance counselors to develop transfer plans. “The two-year plan keeps me focused, and saved me with financial aid,” another woman said.

That welcoming atmosphere, where women and people of color are encouraged and expected to thrive instead of being seen as unusual, must be sustained at community colleges and created at other educational institutions. It hasn’t always been so unusual: computer programming was once thought of as women’s work, but it became overwhelmingly male starting in the mid-1980s as stereotypes about gender and computer science shifted:

Comp sci grads

Source: NPR

Stereotyped messages about who “belongs” in a field matter to young people who are trying to envision themselves in careers.

Holding that vision is difficult to do while women in corporate leadership, especially tech corporate leadership, are few and far between. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (women make up 15 percent of C-level executives and 17 percent of board members, even though research shows that boards with women tend to outperform board without women). A TechCrunch analysis of 84 “unicorn” companies, or U.S. software or internet-oriented companies that are backed by venture capital and valued at more than $1 billion, found that only two CEOs are women, 30 percent have no women in senior leadership, and approximately 70 percent do not have women on their boards. And a Fortune analysis of 191 major U.S. venture capital firms-the crucial backers of tech innovation-found that only 5.6 percent of decision-makers and 10 percent of all investment professionals were women.

The power of these stereotypes is seen in a study of academia that found fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented-if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent. Women make up 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics, engineering, and computer science. understandably, young women may not see STEM fields as welcoming for either education or employment, even though they have the skill and accessibility to resources. Especially when it comes to computer programming, job portals and free online study resources are available in plenty (on websites like Linode) that could encourage women to pursue it. However, social bias and stereotypes haven’t always worked in favor of them.

For the Southern economy to thrive, our workforce needs the skills to compete in the global economy and emerging fields-and we need those skills be to accessible to a broad range of workers, including women and people of color. STEM skills will often be highly technical and specialized, requiring both postsecondary training and job-based experience. Developing equitable education and hiring systems can help us shift patterns of economic mobility and ensure that more Southerners can connect to living-wage careers.

Picture This: The Geography of Immobility

Residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US, because where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs. In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

We talked last week about the importance of reducing housing discrimination as one step toward reducing economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods. Thanks to a new interactive map from the Urban Institute (via CityLab), we can examine patterns of affluence across the US. The map shows where the Census tracts with the highest and lowest socio-economic status are located, with socio-economic status determined by income, educational attainment, homeownership, and housing value. Take a look below at the eight Southern metros that have some of the lowest levels of economic mobility in the US. Census tracts in the top ten percent of socio-economic status are blue, while those in the lowest ten percent are gray.

These Southern metros show clear divisions or clusters of affluence, which implies that resources and opportunity are concentrated in certain areas. That concentration makes it much more difficult for those living outside affluent areas to access affordable housing, jobs, and social networks that are key factors in economic mobility. We can see the picture much more clearly now—what will we do to change it?

Memphis, TN:


Source: Urban Institute


Charlotte, NC:


Source: Urban Institute


Columbia, SC:


Source: Urban Institute


Atlanta, GA:


Source: Urban Institute


Greensboro, NC:


Source: Urban Institute


Raleigh, NC (and neighboring Durham):


Source: Urban Institute


Greenville, SC (and neighboring Spartanburg):


Source: Urban Institute


Jacksonville, FL:


Source: Urban Institute

Intention vs. Impact

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that an important component of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which protects against housing discrimination, still stands. They upheld a lower court ruling that allowed disparate impact claims. As Vox explains:

A disparate impact claim means that regardless of intent, a law results in discrimination. This means that appellants only have to prove that a law’s impact results in discrimination, and not the additional claim that the writers of the law intended it to have that impact.

This idea, that impact matters regardless of intent, is critical to dismantling structural racism in the United States. We are not able to rely on an assessment of whether an individual or institution intends to be racist, because “agencies and businesses seldom announce that they are engaging in purposeful discrimination,” Adam Liptak explained in the New York Times. “’Disparate impact,’ on the other hand, can be proved using statistics.” Intention is particularly hard to measure because most people carry around unconscious or implicit bias. You may not know that your decisions and actions are often tainted by prejudice, but not consciously intending that prejudice does not mean there is no impact. Impact is compounded when bias goes beyond the individual level and drives the practices and policies of organizations and systems, leading to, for example, high levels of residential segregation even though housing and real estate discrimination is illegal.

This ruling is important because residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US. As we said in a recent post about the high costs of transit and housing, where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs:

In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban metro residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

Earlier this week, a study by Sean Reardon at Stanford Graduate School of Education showed that regardless of income, black and Hispanic families live in neighborhoods with lower median income levels than white and Asian families. This NYT graphic shows how a moderate-income black family is likely to live in a lower-income neighborhood than a low-income white family is:


Source: New York Times

The study confirms that low-income young people often have very different experiences depending on the neighborhood and the metro that they live in:

Low-income households in the Washington, DC, or Minneapolis, MN, metropolitan areas, for example, are typically located in neighborhoods similar to those of middle- or higher-income households in Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA, and other metropolitan areas. As a result, children growing up in poor households in metropolitan areas such as Washington and Minneapolis may have, on average, more access to high-quality schools and other forms of opportunity than equally poor (or middleclass) children in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta or Los Angeles.

This week’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward providing equal housing opportunity, but as this 2012 ProPublica investigation showed, we haven’t always made use of the tools at our disposal to push for less housing discrimination. The nation’s highest court has reaffirmed this important legal route for challenging segregation, but there is still a tremendous amount of work needed to ensure all Americans have access to a high-quality infrastructure of opportunity.

Housing, Racial Segregation, and Opportunity

The city and neighborhood you live in have real consequences for your quality of life and your chances of educational and economic success. Race Forward’s Jay Smooth summarized the importance of place in a recent video series on systemic racism, explaining “where you live can help decide what food you eat, what sort of jobs you can get, how safe you are, what sort of healthcare you can get, and the quality of your children’s education.” That may seem obvious, but what’s less obvious to many people is how those dramatic disparities in outcomes by city and neighborhood came to be. We said recently that it’s no accident that communities of color, and particularly black communities, are often the ones lacking opportunity; governmental policies and market practices, supported by discrimination and individual bias, have created those conditions over time.

Last week, Richard Rothstein gave Fresh Air an overview of racist real estate and urban development practices and public policies that created segregation in American cities, including:

  • the Public Works Administration built segregated public housing in previously integrated neighborhoods
  • the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed loans for mass production builders of new subdivisions as long as they didn’t sell homes to African-Americans
  • state licensing boards allowed real estate agents and speculators to frighten white families (by convincing them that their neighborhood was becoming a black slum) into selling their homes for below market-value. These homes were resold to black families, who had access to a restricted housing supply, for much more than they were worth.

Jamelle Bouie explains how the Federal Housing Authority used a racial hierarchy to determine the riskiness of home loans in certain neighborhoods—on their color coded maps, black neighborhoods were red, indicating the highest level of risk. This process of “redlining” meant “loans were either expensive or nonexistent, forcing families to rely on speculators and private sales by unscrupulous homeowners.” Bouie sums up the interaction between institutional and individual bias that enables segregation and the devaluing of black neighborhoods:

These institutions, private and public, didn’t cause racism in housing markets, but they gave it official sanction, which—over time—influenced how individuals understood the value of their homes and neighborhoods. A white neighborhood was a good one; a black neighborhood, a bad one.

We may want to believe that these disturbing policies are a thing of the past, but perceptions of race and class still permeate individual and institutional decisions about who can and should live where. Regardless of economic class, all-white neighborhoods were seen by white people as more desirable. As Brentin Mock explained last week for CityLab, this association that people make between the whiteness of a neighborhood and its safety and value drives continued segregation—and the continued depression of some neighborhoods.

This residential segregation persists in many rural and metro areas, especially in the South, the region of the country with both high levels of diversity and the most recent history of legal segregation. FiveThirtyEight developed an integration-segregation index that takes into account a city’s overall level of diversity as well as its neighborhood level diversity, finding that “cities with substantial black populations tend to be highly segregated.” Of the 100 most populated US cities (they’re looking at metro data next), ten Southern cities—Atlanta, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, Dallas, Birmingham, St. Petersburg, Houston, and Louisville—are in the top 25 most segregated cities. Only five Southern cities, Virginia Beach plus Irving, Arlington, Plano, and Garland TX, are in the 25 least segregated cities. (Check out the Institute for Southern Studies coverage for more).

Segregated neighborhoods mean people have access to systems of opportunity with different levels of quality and different likelihoods of educational and economic success. In many of the South’s sprawling metros, low-income people don’t live near good jobs and they don’t have access to robust public transportation. Preparation for many of those far-away good jobs requires a good education, but according to a recent Urban Institute study, many of the South’s low-income students are concentrated in high-poverty schools that aren’t well-resourced. In Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), NC, one of the places with the lowest economic mobility in the nation, 49 percent of black children are in high-poverty schools, compared to only 6 percent of white children.

UI map

Source: Urban Institute

Continued residential segregation and the economic inequality that segregation exacerbates aren’t just a problem for people of color—although it unquestionably impacts them the most. PolicyLink’s Equity Atlas projects that the South’s economy would be $915 billion larger, an almost 20 percent increase, if there were no racial gaps in income. And as we learned from the most recent Equality of Opportunity Project study, communities that have better outcomes for low-income young people also have better outcomes for high-income young people. As Southerners seek to build a stronger infrastructure of opportunity, one which has reliable options for all young people, regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, we have to dismantle these systems of economic exploitation and stratification, which have relied on racism to justify their continuation for far too long.

The Violence of Bad Policies

Earlier this week, President Obama commented on protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. He talked about how our nation must rethink policing and reform criminal justice, but we must also confront the roots of these issues in “impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity.”

It’s no accident that communities of color, and particularly black communities, are often the ones lacking opportunity. That lack of opportunity isn’t just luck of the birth lottery—the lottery’s odds are set in favor of some and against others. Emily Badger lays out just how that lack of opportunity came to be, from redlining that destroyed the value of homes in black neighborhoods, to urban renewal projects that fragmented and displaced black communities, to mass incarceration that criminalized large segments of generations of men of color, to predatory home-ownership and banking practices that targeted people of color as they began to build wealth. Badger explains how these policies and practices replicate:

[E]ach of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

None of this is an accident. And none of it as simple as individual racial bias. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said yesterday at Johns Hopkins University, “It’s the policy that’s the threat.” Government policy has created advantages for white wealth building while actively destroying black wealth where it exists.