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We Want You

The federal government is on the lookout for minority professionals in science and technology

By Celia Colista

Despite a sluggish economy that has slowed hiring by many private-sector employers, the federal government is in a hiring mode-especially when it comes to recruiting people of color for science and technology positions. With grants targeted toward minority-dominated universities and efforts by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to encourage government agencies to hire more minorities, opportunities abound for minority engineers and computer professionals-even in an economy where jobs are scarce.

The OPM is the federal government's human resources department. It functions much like a civilian company's HR department would and also keeps track of data on government employees, including information on race. The OPM also tracks what individual agencies are doing to recruit minorities and women.

Currently, the feds are placing particular emphasis on increasing the hiring of Hispanics. According to Jacob Lozada, OPM special assistant for diversity, Hispanics are underrepresented in the federal government compared to the civilian sector. Overall, Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of minorities in the federal workforce and Native Americans make up the smallest.

Too Many Opportunities to Count

As for areas in which the government is hiring, engineering students are in luck. According to Lozada, engineers are experiencing the greatest amount of employment opportunities. The agencies most likely to hire engineers are in the military, particularly the Navy, Army and Air Force. NASA is also a big employer of engineers. Although engineers are the most sought-after professionals at the moment, other jobs in science and technology are also in high demand.

According to the OPM, which reports annually on minority representation in the government, efforts to recruit minorities fall into four categories: workforce planning, recruitment and outreach, mentoring, and career development opportunities. Workforce planning involves each agency analyzing its workforce diversity and mapping out a plan to ensure that minorities will be well represented within the agency. Recruitment and outreach consists of agencies sending government representatives to career fairs, awarding grants to create research programs at colleges with high minority representation, and supporting internship programs. The government provides mentoring and career development for its employees by creating programs that provide continuing education and help more minorities reach management positions.

Initiatives that most directly affect students are grants to colleges and universities and internship programs within the government. Grants provide a double benefit-they allow schools to conduct research that they might not otherwise be able to afford, and they provide students with an opportunity for research experience in their fields. In turn, the government hopes to entice students to join its ranks.

For example, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has granted the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) $600,000 to create a program in which students work with faculty to conduct research. Students receive $500 to $1,000 a month and participate in a summer program at the Naval Center in San Diego. Nearly three out of four students at UTEP are Hispanic.

"The hope is that by the time [the students] graduate they've had experience in engineering and experience working at a Naval Center," says Dr. Mehdi Shadaram, chair of the UTEP Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. And the naval centers are not just any laboratories, adds Shadaram. They are far more sophisticated than what students at UTEP have access to on campus.

Like other agencies, the ONR's ultimate aim is to create a highly trained pool of potential job applicants.

Another program at UTEP is funded by NASA, which awarded a grant to the university in 1995 to create the Pan American Center for Earth and Environmental Studies (PACES). The PACES program was awarded a second five-year grant in 2000. The center conducts research focusing on geological, geophysical, ecological, and environmental processes and changes in land usage currently taking place along the Texas/Mexico border. Several university departments participate, including the electrical engineering and computer science departments.

The program is also meant to involve students and help train minority scientists. At the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT), a historically black university, the Department of Energy (DOE) funds the Samuel Massie Chair of Excellence in Environmental Engineering. Since 1994, the DOE has awarded $20 million to several colleges and universities with high minority representation. According to Shoou-Yuh Chang, current Samuel Massie chair at NCAT, 50 graduate and undergraduate students participate by assisting faculty in conducting research.

Florida A&M University, another historically black university, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy also fund several initiatives, including scholarship programs. "They primarily work with us to prepare students for their agencies," says Bobby Fields, former dean of the College of Engineering.

Fields adds that one of the biggest challenges in attracting more students to science and technology is educating them about the potential opportunities they may not know exist. For example, students may not be aware of more obscure fields they can go into with a degree in agricultural science, such as engineering foods for use in outer space.

"There's a need for greater efforts to expose students to the various opportunities that exist in agricultural science and technology," Fields says. "If we can get them exposed, then we can recruit them."

WANTED: Diverse, Young Techies

Although Fields and others say there is a need for more funding to recruit students to engineering and technology, they agree that efforts have increased in recent years.

According to UTEP's Shadaram, in the last 19 years external funding at the university level has increased from $2 million to $40 million-at least 80% of which is from federal funds. Some agencies commonly involved include NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Laboratory, the Office of Naval Research and the National Institutes of Health.

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has also seen an increase in efforts. Much of the increase, says Kevin Briscoe, editor of NSBE Magazine, has resulted from the Homeland Security Act, a reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks. According to Briscoe, the FBI and National Defense Agencies are gearing up their recruitment efforts in general, which ultimately benefits minority professionals.

Although government agencies have always attended the NSBE's annual career fair, this year the organization noted what Briscoe called "a surprisingly strong military presence." He adds, "This was particularly compelling given that [the fair] was on the same day that the war started in Iraq."

The government's recruitment push is not just to increase diversity. There is an overall need to increase recruitment numbers in order to replenish an aging workforce of tech professionals. The Department of Energy reports that less than 10% of its employees in technology are age 30 or younger.

Lacking both minorities and younger tech workers, the DOE initiated a major recruiting program in 2002 to create relationships with schools that have both a high percentage of Hispanic students and a tech-focused curriculum. As part of the program, DOE recruiters promote agency internships to students at schools affiliated with the program, including the University of Texas Pan American, the University of Puerto Rico and Florida International University.

Overall, the government's diversity hiring efforts seem to be paying off; the OPM reports that nearly 10% of all new federal hires in 2002 were Hispanic-representing a 58% increase over the previous year.

Things Are Looking Up

A report by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, which uses data from the OPM's biennial reports on diversity in the workforce, shows that women and non-Caucasian engineering professionals have increased their numbers in the federal workplace since 1988. African Americans represented 4.4% of all engineers in the government in 2002, compared with 3.3% in 1988.

Hispanics made up 4% of all federal engineers in 2002, up from 3.2% in 1988. While diversity in science and technology is still a challenge in the federal government, such gains are encouraging. Briscoe adds, "I think the government is embracing the notion of diversity as a strong business practice."

Celia Colista is a New York-based free-lance writer who specializes in career issues.


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