Diversity Dilemma: Why African American Civil Engineering Candidates Are Hard To Find And How Civil Engineering Companies Can Help Fix It

It is no secret that the civil engineering profession has a shortage of talent and efforts to recruit more women and minorities into the profession have been fair to moderately successful. Some want to blame the mixed results on the lack of interest in engineering careers by diversity candidates. Others blame the “good old boy” network whose invisible hand allegedly sabotages diversity recruiting efforts to preserve the “culture” of the profession. I acknowledge that discrimination still exists in the workplace, but I do not wholly subscribe to the lack of interest in engineering or the “good old boy” conspiracy. My hypothesis on why African American candidates are hard to find is much simpler: The civil engineering profession loses its chance to recruit African American engineering graduates because of the failure of the education system to produce enough qualified candidates and the fact that the civil engineering profession has limited exposure in the black community.

African Americans and Civil Engineering: A Issue of Supply and Demand

According a recent Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) report, the total number of African American civil engineering graduates in the United States in 2007 was 452 (female and male) out of a total graduating civil engineering class of 9,875i. I had to catch my breath because this data confirmed my suspicion that there was a major supply problem but I did not know it was this dire. After drilling down into the data, another question arose: How can a major population group have such a low representation in a career field that affects every community? (Remember, the US has over 200 million people and African Americans account for about 15% of the total population). This article is attempt to answer to that question.

The Root of the Problem

A main culprit in the loss of African American talent to civil engineering is the education system. A 2008 NACME reportii found that only 4 percent of minority high school graduates were “engineering eligible” or had enough math and science credit to qualify for college engineering programs. Here is an example they used to illustrate their point:

In 2002, 690,000 minority students graduated from high school, but only about 28,000 had taken the necessary math and science courses to be fully qualified for admission to engineering study. Approximately 17,000 of them enrolled as first-year students in engineering schools out of a total class of 107,000. That same year, 4,136 Latinos, 2,982 African Americans, and 308 American Indians received baccalaureate degrees in engineering out of a total of 60,639 graduatesiii

This data covers all engineering disciplines but the underlying downward trend impacts the civil engineering profession and America’s ability to compete economically (By the way, there were only 369 African American Civil engineering graduates in 2002iv) . Not only are students in short supply but the number of qualified math and science teachers has declined as well. African American engineering students I have interviewed over years report that it was a knowledgeable teacher, counselor or relative who exposed them to civil engineering. This is not just a diversity candidate supply problem but a serious industry wide talent supply threat. Here are some suggestions on how civil engineering firms can help solve the problem.

Increase Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Programs at High School And College Levels

To increase the supply of black students, civil engineering firms should step up their grass roots support of pre-collegiate STEMv programs like MathCountsvi, The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) sponsored Pre-Collegiate Initiative (PCI) or UTEACHvii and organizations like NACME to increase student interest, involvement and quality. Private sector grass roots support is vital because inner city and rural African American high school students miss these opportunities because their schools often lack the resources and expertise to run these types of programs. Support efforts should be focused on increasing the number of students and quality of math and science education delivered.

Texas is one of the states with a large minority high school student population, who was facing a large drop in qualified math and science teachers and the numbers of minority students going to college for STEM based fields. UTEACH is an innovative program at the University of Texas which trains new math and science teachers to teach design based engineering courses at the high school level. One of the goals of the program is to increase the numbers of qualified students for college engineering and science programs by increasing the quality of the teachers. The program has been so successful that the National Science Foundation awarded it with a $12.5 million grantviii and ExxonMobil committed $125 Million for replication of the program across the US.

Increase Visibility at High School and Colleges In Order to Compete for Talent

The key to effective diversity recruiting is to expose your brand in the target demographic early and often. Civil engineering firms should be more visible on college and high school campuses especially at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who are the dominate institutions graduating African American engineersix. It is no longer enough to send the human resources and recruiting staff on the day of a campus recruiting events. A company representative, project manager or company executive must also be present at other campus events to attract students and reinforce the company’s brand as a great place to work.

The ongoing marketing and branding efforts by energy, information technology and other technology oriented companies show their commitment to reaching the next generation of graduates before they hit a college campus. IBM has a program called “Career Explorations”x where they invite the high school age children of their employees to their Somers, NY training center to learn about career opportunities and the job market. These efforts may not look like they are targeted toward African American civil engineering graduates but many from the small pool graduates are recruited to government, energy, industrial and technology companies by programs like these long before they come to college career fair.


My challenge to all civil engineering firms is this: These students need to meet you, shake your hand and know that you want them to be a part of your profession. Get out there and show them that civil engineering has great companies, great people and a great future.


iiNational Action Council on Minorities In Engineering

iiiFrom NACME report Confronting the New American Dilemma pg. 5

ivCPST Data Table 4-44

vScience, Technology Engineering and Mathematics

viThe Math Counts Foundation www.mathcounts.org

viiA University of Texas program to teach design engineering courses to high school students

viii See http://uteach.engr.utexas.edu/press.htm

ix From NACME report Table 5 pg.15

xDownloaded from ERIC Education Resource Information Center http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED458500&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno

7 Responses to “Diversity Dilemma: Why African American Civil Engineering Candidates Are Hard To Find And How Civil Engineering Companies Can Help Fix It”
  1. Keith, PE says:

    This is a great article. Many times I was the only black engineer in the room.

    We should start with more intern programs so that young people get exposed to engineering as a career choice at an early age.

    We should develop mentor programs that provide students with an example and some guidance.

    Dr. Bernadette Hence has a great STEM program through the US Dept. Of Ed.

    We must all participate in the future of American youth!

  2. Kenneth, PE says:

    Keith is correct about more internship opportunities. My did mine through an organization called INROADS.

    We also need to give people a choice about where they send their children to school.

    The public school system in many cities is so far gone and riddled with incompetence that no matter how much funding is given not much a result will be realized.

    I can directly tie my ability to become a Civil Engineer to my primary school education at Thayer Academy, a college prepartory school in Braintree, MA.

    Here in SC our public schools are hideously underperforming in comparision to the rest of the country. Yet most black leadership denounce the school voucher program. I wonder why?

  3. I would like to thank everyone who has commented on this article. Not only has it sparked positive debate and awareness among its readers.It has also brought forth deep seeded intolerances that exist in all of us.

    While I have chosen not allow these intolerant comments to be voiced on this blog, I value them. Every real opportunity to grow and prosper in life must have opposition. The presence of opposing comments confirms that the central message of this article is on target and fulfilling its purpose. It is my hope that all of us who embrace the common good of all can work together to bring a equitable solution to this problem.

    Thanks for reading

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