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Building a Knowledge Workforce

America is a country of immigrants, strong in its diversity—a diversity of cultures, of ideas, of philosophies—but united in its common goals and objectives. We are also a country of laws, laws that have, in part, been built to honor that diversity and to enhance the potential of every citizen to achieve the best of which they are capable. Thomas Jefferson's ringing phrase, "All men are created equal . . ." was a very original sentiment in its time, but we have taken his words to heart and gradually modified our mores to accommodate them. And the diversity has become our greatest strength, one that will enable us to interact well with people from throughout the world, thus giving us a major competitive advantage in an increasingly global economy.

We will sacrifice that competitive advantage, however, if we do not recruit sufficient numbers of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans into our scientific and technical workforce, and retain a much higher proportion of qualified women than is currently the case in the same professions. Doing so not only suits our morals and our highest aspirations, it has become an economic necessity. Currently, with approximately 4.5 percent of the world's population, we control about 25 percent of its economy. We no longer manufacture many items that were staples in our recent industrial past, from television sets to watches to refrigerators, and our agriculture succeeds in a global marketplace primarily because it is so heavily subsidized.

We need large numbers of "knowledge workers"—scientists, engineers, medical professionals and technicians—to maintain our progress, but our educational system is not producing them in quantities sufficient to meet our needs. Such careers are not selected nearly as frequently by minority students as they are by whites, and that greatly reduces the total workforce. The situation can only get worse unless we address it vigorously.

The proportion of minority students in primary and secondary schools nationally grew from about 30 percent to more than 39 percent from 1986 to 2000, and minorities will become a majority by 2030. In some of the states with larger economies, such as California and Texas, minority student enrollment had already grown to large majorities by 2000, and continues to grow rapidly. Non-whites will outnumber whites in the general population by about the middle of this century, and what will our scientific and technical workforce look like then?

Poverty, a lack of role models, a concentration on traditional careers, the encouragement of family values that incorporate these careers—many factors are involved in the comparatively low rates of recruitment and retention of minorities into science and technology. Many programs have been designed to improve the situation, but they have not been nearly successful enough. Strong efforts to recruit minority faculty members and other professionals will help greatly. Sigma Xi chapters and professional associations have a major role to play in confronting this serious crisis. But the time to act is now: Redressing the balance is not just a nice thing to do, it is a necessity.

Peter H. Raven
President, Sigma Xi

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