Exposing Our Youth to the Jobs of the Future

James T. McLawhorn, Jr.
President & Chief Executive Officer, Columbia Urban League, Inc.

Leaf through the pages of the 2017 edition of the Columbia Urban League’s annual report, and you will find pictures of excited middle and high school students attending our annual STEM Expo. In one picture, students are making paper airplanes while others are examining several plane models. Most importantly, all of them are being introduced to possible careers in the airplane industry by Frank Hatten, education relations director for Boeing. In another picture, students are visiting an exhibit that features solar chargers, hydrogen fuel cell cars, and a mechanical charging bike. Keep looking and you will find an exhibit featuring a bomb squad robot; another displaying experiments in forensic science, addressing handwriting, fingerprinting and chromatography; and an exhibit with a remote TV station green screen demonstrating how technology is used in everyday news presentations.

The Columbia Urban League was founded in 1967—three years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned employment discrimination based on race. As a result, the Columbia Urban League quickly became the organization employers  in South Carolina relied on to recruit a diverse workforce. Despite the hindrances of racial discrimination and segregation, our constituents were determined to be prepared for these new career opportunities. These men and women understood that preparation was the key to success and an improved quality of life.

Our young clients demonstrate the same passion we witnessed in the 60s. Today, young men and women face the challenges of a changing workforce that requires skills and competencies in STEM. Without STEM skills, the shift to technology and automation has the potential to permanently lock historically vulnerable communities out of the workforce. According to the Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation dedicated to preparing people for informed citizenship and success in a global economy, too many African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans are not on track to secure the credentials necessary to enter the workforce by 2025. In a recent Joint Center for Political Studies report authored by Kristen Broady, she determined that automation will have a significantly negative effect on African-American and Latino workers’ career opportunities.

The annual STEM Expo was born from our recognition that African Americans, underserved and disadvantaged communities need greater exposure to STEM careers. Students who attend Columbia Urban League’s STEM expos say they leave the experience excited about STEM and empowered to pursue careers in the field. STEM is no longer an option; it is an imperative for historically disadvantaged communities to acquire skills that will allow them to become productive members of society.