When government, business and college leaders meet to discuss the coming shortfall of American graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, they often emphasize that companies and educators need to focus on students from all kinds of backgrounds, and especially those who are underrepresented minorities.
Besides scholarships, mentoring and grants, one often-overlooked avenue to keeping such students on the pipeline to employment in STEM fields is partnerships between business and higher education. Some of the biggest government contractors -- among them Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Raytheon -- work with colleges and universities across the country not only for research and development, but for subcontracting purposes as well.
Representatives from such companies, along with leaders from historically black colleges, met Monday at the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference to discuss how to improve such partnerships between business and higher education to integrate black colleges into the supply chain and in turn to create more opportunities for minority students studying in STEM fields.
"These partnerships have helped to advance our initiatives and have enabled us to recruit employees [from a] diverse talent pool," said Oliver Leslie, manager for supplier diversity and HBCU/minority-serving institutions at Boeing. The company works with 25 historically black colleges and provides $1.5 million a year in scholarships, he said. "HBCU's are critically in the Boeing supply chain world."
But that doesn't mean all black colleges are necessarily prepared to pursue contracts. Their infrastructure, like that of many institutions, may be more geared toward grants, Leslie said, but "now we’re on the contract side of the house." He works with colleges to help them adapt to accepting contract work.
Tizoc S. Loza, the corporate project manager for mentor-protégé and HBCU programs at Northrop Grumman, said that "one of the major challenges that we have with universities," especially HBCUs and minority institutions, is "the ability to give federal contracts." His own programs target colleges that are aligned and able to receive federal contracts to maximize subcontracting opportunities, he added.
One solution, according to Myron Hardiman, executive director of Advancing Minorities’ Interests in Engineering, is to initiate pilot programs that partner individual HBCUs with small businesses. The colleges would then act as subcontractors to one of the "primes," he said, and from a successful pilot they could move on to direct relationships with the major contractors.
"Our long-term vision ... is we want to have an opportunity for those HBCUs to partner together ... and go after the prime contractor, and they can then settle to the Boeings and Northrops."