Black and Latino/a Engineers Face Inequitable Career Outcomes

Black and Latino/a Engineers Face Inequitable Career Outcomes
portrait of Jessica Bryant
By Jessica Bryant

Published on September 1, 2021

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When choosing a college major or career pathway, most people hope to get the best return on their investment. For some, that means choosing an occupation that guarantees job security, a great salary, or a high level of prestige. One of the highest-paid, most secure occupations in the U.S. is an engineer. But, career outcomes in engineering vary significantly across different races.

In a recent Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) report, researchers found that out of approximately 1.7 million engineers 25-54 years old in 2019, 81% were either white or Asian and 84% were men. Just 3% of working engineers that year were Black or Latina women.

Legislative efforts to increase diversity in engineering have existed since at least 1950 under the National Science Foundation Act. But progress has been slow, even stagnant, at times. And minorities continue to account for a very small piece of the engineering industry.

Over the last decade, diversity in engineering has improved minimally. The number of Asian and Latino/a engineers from 2009 to 2019 has only increased by three percentage points each. The percentage of Black engineers has not changed at all.

During the same period, the percentage of students of color with engineering degrees also saw very minimal improvement. While the percentage of Latino/a graduates increased, the percentage of Black and Asian engineering graduates actually fell.

At current growth rates, the CEW report deduces that it would take 76 years to achieve student equity in engineering occupations for Black and Latino/a individuals. To achieve equity for just Black workers, it would take 256 years.

Black and Latino/a Engineers Make Less Than Their Peers

In addition to accounting for a small percentage of the engineering workforce, Black and Latino/a engineers also earn significantly less and are less likely to advance in the field than their white and Asian counterparts.

Part of this is due to general inequities in educational attainment and opportunities for people of color. Even within the industry, the CEW study reports, Black and Latino/a engineers have lower educational attainment than their peers, with 25% working engineering jobs without having a bachelor's degree.

Black and Latino/a individuals are also disproportionately more likely to pursue engineering degrees that are not specialized or as financially lucrative than those pursued by white and Asian students, says the CEW.

Students who major in general engineering can expect to make approximately $10,000 less than engineering majors overall. Earning a specialized degree, like petroleum engineering, could mean a $20,000 increase in earnings.

Another factor that the CEW report isolates as contributing to inequitable opportunities for Black engineers is technology companies' bias against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). HBCUs produce a large number of Black engineers.

Unfortunately, companies like Google have had systems in place that downgrade graduates from these institutions during the recruiting process in favor of graduates from other elite schools.

Black and Latino/a Engineers Earn More Working In-Field

Not all individuals who hold a bachelor's degree in engineering choose to work within the field. Though the percentage of degree-holders working in-field varies greatly across race and engineering speciality, what's clear is that Black and Latino/a degree-holders who choose to remain in-field fare better than they do out-of-field, even in management roles.

Median earnings for Latino/a women working out-of-field were lowest at $46,000. Conversely, earnings for Asian and white men working out-of-field were highest at $107,000 and $104,000, respectively.

Earnings significantly lessen for Black and Latino/a men and women when choosing to work out-of-field. Latina women, in particular, earned over $35,000 more per year working in-field than working out-of-field.

Equalizing Outcomes for Engineers of Color

Though government and foundational efforts to equalize outcomes for diverse engineers exist, systemic factors have made any progress toward achieving equity slow. Until disparities in college enrollment and educational attainment are addressed, the engineering profession will continue to make little advancement toward diversity.

Feature Image: skynesher / E+ / Getty Images

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