Congress Blasts Poor IT Diversity Record

WASHINGTON (07/20/2000) - Eileen Collins, a veteran astronaut who has been on three space shuttle missions, recalled the problems she faced in seeking technical training.

Peer pressure in high school has "an incredible influence," Collins said, adding that she was "more comfortable taking classes with my friends than branching out to mostly male classrooms."

Collins told her story earlier this month before a congressional commission that said women, minorities and people with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in science and high-tech jobs. The commission called on government and private employers to do more to diversify the workforce.

As the need for high-tech workers grows, the U.S. is "exhausting the intellectual capital that is fueling our economic expansion," said Elaine Mendoza, chairwoman of the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology.

Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., has estimated that there are 400,000 vacant information technology jobs in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.3 million technology jobs will have been created between 1998 and 2008.

The commission's report analyzed what Mendoza termed "disturbing" trends in high-tech job training and hiring.

For instance, racial and ethnic minorities will represent nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce by 2020, but today Hispanics hold only 3% of high-tech jobs, and African-Americans hold 3.2%, according to the commission's report. People with disabilities today make up nearly 14% of the workforce but hold less than 6% of the science and technology jobs. Only 9% of U.S. engineers are women, and 27% of the country's computer scientists and programmers are women.

"Though it is difficult to hear, it's important to emphasize that quick fixes are unlikely to occur," said Norman Fortenberry, acting director at the National Science Foundation's human resource development division. It takes "sustained interventions and investments" along the entire educational continuum and support for new science and technology professionals, Fortenberry said.

One step that can be takento encourage people with disabilities to take science and technology jobs is to makeoffices and high-tech training courses wheelchair-accessible, said Joan Ripple, a project specialist at Berkeley, Calif.-based InfoUse, which specializes in the development of disability and rehabilitation information using computer technology.

The commission's report cited wide-ranging educational, financial and cultural barriers that are keeping minorities and women out of high-tech jobs, including bias and the absence of mentoring.

It offered recommendations including education reforms and greater financial assistance to underrepresented students. The report also called for a public/private partnership campaign to implement the recommendations.

"Growing the American talent pool will require a nationwide call to action and a major shift in how we educate, train and recruit citizens" in high-tech fields, said Mendoza, president and CEO of softwaredeveloper Conceptual MindWorks Inc. in San Antonio.

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