To find more programmers, scientists and engineers, we don’t have to wait for the future generation of workers to come of age. The women raising them could be the best candidates.
For years, Americans have been talking about the growing skills gap: 7 million science, technology, engineering and math jobs are predicted to open by 2028, according to the labor market analysis firm EMSI, and employers fear there won’t be enough skilled workers to fill them. Americans have been talking, too, about how closing the gender gap is crucial to solving this problem. While women constitute nearly half the US workforce, they hold just 29% of STEM jobs.
But there’s a crucial piece of the puzzle we haven’t been talking about: the fact that pursuing one of the most important jobs in the world — being a mom — decreases the chance of acquiring a degree in these fields.
It’s unlikely we can close the nation’s STEM gender gap without granting more degrees in these fields to moms and making college and careers work for them. Mothers of dependent children comprise only 16% of US college students, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Single mothers especially face challenges, with less time to spend on homework and sleep than their peers, significant financial burdens and a resulting six-year college graduation rate of just 28%.
The reality is that women too often face pressure to choose between family and the educational and technical training experiences that fuel successful STEM careers. But I believe there is a promising path that makes it easier to choose both: technical programs at community colleges.
These programs lead directly to high-demand careers with family-sustaining wages. When students enroll, they know exactly what local jobs will be available to them upon graduation, how much they pay and by how much the field is expected to grow. What’s more, technical programs are often highly structured, with little room to go off track. Having a clear course schedule that follows a specific map allows parents to plan for child care and ensures they won’t waste precious time and money on classes that don’t move them closer to their degree.
Excellent technical programs are often designed as a cohort model, which means students proceed through their courses with a consistent group of peers, faculty and industry mentors, with whom they build ongoing relationships and rely on for support. Those kinds of personal interactions make it more likely for a student to feel comfortable sharing with her professor when personal issues complicate her studies — which is known to happen when children are in the mix — and working out a solution together.
I know firsthand how important these attributes are when balancing jobs, school and motherhood. Early in my career, I entered a training program at IBM for math graduates. The teachers were invested in our success, and the students bonded, knowing we weren’t in it alone. While the program was intense, we stuck with it, knowing we’d emerge as programmers with jobs that put our skills to work immediately and were crucial to society, something important to me and so many moms in the workforce.
For me, the challenge to balance career and family goals came when I was promoted to management. Pregnant with my second child, I remember that feeling of being fully committed to projects that were critical to national security, and fully determined to get home for bath time.
In this moment when careers are lasting longer — decades longer than when I started my career in the 1980s — women need the flexibility to pursue education beyond high school at any age and at any stage of their lives. Women must be able to pick a sequence that works for them rather than having to conform to longstanding societal expectations.
The same qualities that make highly structured technical programs a great choice for new moms also make them a promising path for women who want to return to the workforce after staying home with children. For those who seek training, entering a technical career in middle age is possible now in a way it hasn’t been for a long time.
There’s no price tag you can place on the value of being an example to your children. When my kids were in middle school, they told me they were proud of my career — something I hope all moms who want to work have the opportunity to hear one day.
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