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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Revenge of the nerds: Job opportunities abound for black engineers
March 24, 2011 -- University of Florida electrical engineering graduate student Elizabeth Arowolo looks over the Procter & Gamble display at the Career Fair during the National Society of Black Engineers 37th Annual Convention at America's Center in St. Louis. Stephanie S. Cordle email@example.com
Brenda Nathan doesn't shy away from the perception of her chosen profession — she embraces it.
"I'm a complete nerd," boasted the California Polytechnic State University mechanical engineering major, one of 8,000 young people attending the National Society of Black Engineers convention in downtown St. Louis last week. "I take pride in it."
The revenge of the nerds — as Nathan and other conventioneers can attest after four days of courtship by the nation's top corporations — is called job opportunity.
The student-led organization was to conclude its 37th annual meeting with a Saturday night concert by rapper-actor LL Cool J.
In addition to the job fair, the four-day event at America's Center featured symposiums on employment ("The Parallels of Job-Seeking and Dating"), personal enhancement ("Eliminating self-defeating behavior") and abstruse engineering discourse ("Battle of the Frameworks: ITIL/Six Sigma/ISO 9000/CMMI").
Organizers said the presence of 300 top-drawer exhibitors — Apple, Boeing, Intel, the CIA, Johnson & Johnson, Honda, Facebook, General Mills and Wal-Mart to name just a few — represented more than an empty gesture to minority hiring. Several companies, in fact, reserved interview rooms off the convention floor with the express purpose of making on-the-spot offers to qualified candidates.
Fourth-year Hampton University electrical engineering major Taylor Armstead, emerging from a get-acquainted conversation with Intel recruiters, hoped to be among those departing St. Louis with a job. Though the African-American unemployment rate nationwide continues to run far higher than for the general population — 15.7 percent compared with 8.9 percent — highly qualified minority candidates remain in demand among white-collar professions conscious of diversity.
Armstead is fully aware of the advantage of being a highly educated black candidate: "We're a hot commodity right now," he said.
Nationally, 2 million people earn a living as professional engineers. Of those, the NSBE estimates 70,000 are African-American.
As they added an estimated $20 million to the St. Louis area's economy, few of the conventiongoers from across the country were aware of the backdrop that almost cost St. Louis the chance to host the NSBE. Angered at the forced dismissal of former St. Louis Fire Chief Sherman George, local civil rights leaders three years ago asked the engineers to reconsider a commitment to hold the 2011 convention in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.
Carl Mack, executive director of the 35,000-member society, said the organization honored the commitment after ascertaining the mayor's office was making good-faith efforts to breach the racial divide.
Mack's personal goal is to live to see the day when the number of black males graduating college outpaces the number of black males serving time in the penal system.
The mission of the engineers group is to encourage parents and secondary and post-secondary institutions to better prepare young people for the rigors of a demanding field of study based on science and math. Success in an engineering curriculum, Mack said, is predicated on passing three key courses — calculus, chemistry and physics.
Seventy percent of the 10,000 black students who enroll as engineering majors each fall, he reports, don't make the cut. Mack said it is incumbent on blacks in communities, along with schools, to turn young people on to math and science as a practical alternative to the minuscule odds of striking it big in sports or entertainment.
To Mack, the group's outreach effort is the not-so-simple task of getting enough kids, and their parents, to buy into the reality of education being its own reward.
A relieved Ashley Jackson is now able to boast that she survived the gantlet of calculus/chemistry/physics. "I won't say it was the easiest thing, but I made it," said the Virginia Commonwealth University biomedical engineering major.
A year before she is scheduled to receive her degree, Jackson arrived in St. Louis with life beyond VCU in mind.
The prospect looked bright after her first stop at the career fair, a booth staffed by recruiters from Johnson & Johnson, netted an appointment for an in-depth interview later in the day.
Jackson says she doesn't see a lot of classmates that look like her in VCU engineering school classrooms.
"I can probably count them on one hand," she said.
But the transformation is under way in a profession once almost exclusively the domain of white males.
"Things are changing," said Charmaine Flemming, a graduate student in chemical engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology.
The proof of that is the NSBE itself. Women now make up more than 40 percent of the membership.
Nathan, the Cal Poly mechanical engineering major, argues that women of all colors, by nature, add a dimension that engineering often lacked when men dominated profession.
"We're much more detail-oriented," she noted good-naturedly. "I pay attention to the small things."
As for the nerd thing, well, Nathan says it's a bit overblown.
"I have a nice little social life myself," she noted.