Next month, Kentucky State University will begin working with students from grades six through 12 to provide learning opportunities in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
KSU, a historically Black university located in Frankfort, will work with Frankfort Independent Schools and use a $400,000 grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to encourage students to consider STEM careers.
“What we ultimately want is for our students to have something that they can take away that is truly unique to them and that has them credentialed,” said Dr. Ron Chi, chief academic officer of the program.
Along with STEM classes, students will also study humanities and earn college credit. Though the Kenan charitable trust is interested in measuring outcomes for boys of color, Dr. Chi says the program will benefit all students.
Of the more than 77,000 workers in STEM fields in Kentucky, African Americans represent 5%. That number does not include jobs in health care. When health care positions are factored in — physicians, nurses, radiologists, etc. — African Americans represent 4.2% of more than 214,000 jobs according to 2014 data from the Kentucky State Data Center.
African Americans represent 7.3% of the total civilian employed population aged 16 and older in Kentucky.
But even with STEM degrees, for some African Americans, it can be difficult to find STEM jobs.
“We still have this cultural thing where even when young people have the degrees from some of the best colleges and universities in the country, that tech companies are still lagging in the hiring of minorities,” said Dr. Nat Irvin of the University of Louisville College of Business. “So it’s not only increasing the pipeline but we also need to change the culture of companies themselves.”
Irvin said culture plays a major role in how people make decisions, including whom they hire.
“There’s a tendency to attract the people that look most like you,” he said. “So it’s been a problem for minorities in business that you have to overcome. Are there people there like me?”
Regardless of barriers to employment for people of color, Irvin said a college degree is important to the workforce.
University of Kentucky economics professor Chris Bollinger agrees that a college degree is important to the labor pool. He said as technology changes, the specific skills needed for any particular job may also change.
“And what we find is people with college degrees, in general, are much more able to adapt to those changes and, essentially in a sense, reinvent themselves for whatever the next thing coming along is, than people without that college degree,” he said.
Bollinger said compared to the national average, Kentucky has an uneducated workforce. He said that hurts the state in myriad ways.
“It’s a big part of the reason why our average income is lower, it’s a big part of the reason why our unemployment rate is higher, he said. “And it makes it difficult to attract high tech companies because they look at the labor force and they say, ‘you don’t have what we need.’”
This story has been updated. In the previous version, we incorrectly stated the percentage of African Americans employed in STEM fields in Kentucky.