Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd
Mechanical Engineer, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (retired)
Former President, Alabama Start University
Employers need to be more intentional about recruiting students and graduates of color for paid internship opportunities
When it comes to technical innovation and global competitiveness, the stakes are simply too high to leave any talent on the table. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening when employers miss the opportunity to recruit trained, motivated engineering students at the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).
Meeting the skyrocketing demand for college-trained technical workers requires expanding the pool of available talent to include more individuals from backgrounds that are currently underrepresented in technical fields. According to research by Zippia, a leading placement firm specializing in tech-related jobs, Black and African American engineers constitute only 3.3 percent of the U.S. engineering workforce, and Hispanic and Latino engineers just over nine percent. Both numbers are far below these groups’ share of the overall U.S. population—approximately 18.7 percent Latino and 12.1 percent Black—and represent an enormous opportunity to grow the technical workforce.
Many laudable initiatives across the corporate, academic, and non-profit communities aim to increase representation of people of color in technical fields. The ASME Foundation’s philanthropic programs stand out for the way they address the entire arc of an engineer’s professional journey, from early inspiration in the K-12 grades to resources for early-career engineers—all with the goal of fostering “equity in engineering” and “sustainability for the world.”
Yet there remains a yawning equity gap between earning a college degree and landing that first, high-potential entry-level engineering job. One highly effective bridge is the paid internship, where an aspiring engineer builds professional networks, polishes skills, and gains the valuable workplace experience that simply cannot be taught in a classroom setting.
Research provided by the nonprofit internXL.org platform shows that only 6.6 percent of Black students and 7.9 percent of Latino students have participated in paid internships, compared to 74 percent of white students. At the same time, both groups are overrepresented when it comes to unpaid internships.
This is a structural inequality that must be addressed if this nation is going to both live up to its lofty ideals and fill the more than three million skilled technical jobs that are currently going wanting. Global competitiveness requires it. Simple fairness demands it.
Increasing access to paid internships is a key objective of ASME’s HBCU Engineering Pathways initiative. The internship placement services and other resources provided by ASME are a clear benefit to participating HBCUs. For employers, engaging paid interns from diverse backgrounds is good business on several levels. Building their future workforce is an obvious plus, as is the chance to deliver on their corporate social responsibility agenda.
Harder to quantify but perhaps even more valuable is the boost to creative problem-solving that a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce affords, because the more varied the perspectives and life experiences at work on a problem, the greater the chance for more out-of-the-box thinking to solve it.
There are many causes of the paid internship equity gap, but there is one clear solution: employers need to be more intentional about recruiting students and graduates of color for paid internship opportunities.
However, good intentions are not enough. A job this big and this important requires partnerships among engineering schools at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, professional societies like ASME, and both institutional and individual funders. Only by collaborating at scale can we begin to narrow the pernicious equity gap and meet the needs of employers, aspiring technical professionals, and our sustainable future.
Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd is the former president of Alabama State University and a retired mechanical engineer at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. She currently serves on the Campaign Cabinet for ASME’s Campaign for Next Generation Engineers. To support the Boyd Scholarship Fund for Equity in Engineering, visit asmefoundation.org/donate.