The High Stakes of Diversity for Washington State

May 18, 2017

Washington State may have a bright future if it maintains its dominance in the tech sector, but that could be a tall order. Lack of diversity in the STEM workforce could be the state’s Achilles heel, and that challenge has its roots in K-12.

It should surprise no one that STEM jobs pay in a state with companies like Microsoft and Boeing call home. STEM jobs in Washington State may well grow 15 percent in the coming decade, and the state’s STEM wage premium is enormous:

Washington State STEM Earnings

Unfortunately, people of color are least likely to reap these rewards. Notice for example, who earns degrees and certificates in computing or engineering:

WAshington State diversity of computing credentials

WAshington state diversity of engineering credentials

The green line in each chart represents minorities as a percentage of the college-aged population. The blue line represents the percentage of degrees and certificates that went to minorities. The wider the space between the two lines, the less well represented minorities are.

If you squint, you might seem some improvement in the last half-decade or so, but the gaps remain enormous. Black, Latino, and American Indian Washingtonians at state colleges and universities are still much less likely than their white or Asian peers to receive credentials in STEM.

The problem starts early, and it might get worse. For example, science scores for white eighth-graders in the state have climbed steadily since 2009, while those of black and Latino students have languished:

WAshington State science scores

Math scores follow similar trends, and black students fare the worst.

One possible reason: Underrepresented students of color seem to have less access to STEM learning opportunities. Teachers of African American students are less likely to say they have the resources they need to teach science:

Washington State resources to teach science

Access to lab equipment and supplies is also very uneven, and again students of color get the short end of the stick:

Washington State lab supplies

Even those students of color who have the potential to succeed on Advanced Placement tests in STEM often don’t take them:

Washington State Students who could thrive in AP don't take tests

Many may attend schools that don’t offer AP classes or their equivalents.

These disadvantages can add up over time and exacerbate the gaps. In Washington State, Blacks and Hispanics hold only seven percent of computing jobs and five percent of engineering jobs, even though they make up 15 percent of the state’s working-age population. For a state that will need all the STEM talent it can get, such inequities can be devastating.

Fortunately, STEM advocates in organizations like WashingtonSTEM have worked with state leaders to put STEM education at the forefront. The state has embraced robust new science standards. It aims to increase students’ access to computer science education. It is bringing STEM into early childhood education. It will take time for policies like these to affect the workforce, but they are a vital down-payment on the state’s prosperitys.  

To learn more about STEM in Washington State, check out our STEM Vital Signs page, or download our data presentation on the state.

Tags: computer science, engineering, diversity, jobs & workforce