With unemployment at a 10-year low and employers increasingly unable to fill skilled technical positions, now is an opportune time to bring more women into middle-skill STEM jobs. Community colleges can play a central role in meeting this challenge, building on their experience engaging employers to develop overlooked talent pools.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, even though women are more likely than men to be employed in a middle-skill job—one that requires less than a Bachelor’s degree—they are much less likely to be employed in a well-paying middle-skill job. This is because women are segregated into the lowest-paid middle-skill jobs, like health support and education positions, rather than the higher-paying middle-skill jobs that are dominated by men, such as IT, advanced manufacturing, and logistics.

Given these large pay gaps, we may wonder why more women don’t pursue male-dominated middle-skill jobs. Society often wrongly assumes that women are “just not interested” in these fields or that they lack necessary mathematical aptitude or reasoning skills. Research has demonstrated, however, that the barriers women face to entering middle-skill STEM fields have more to do with negative gender stereotypes about women in male-dominated STEM fields, a lack of female role models, and a misunderstanding about the work that skilled technicians perform.

Women who have overcome these hurdles to succeed in middle-skill STEM fields of study report that employers play an important role in opening up awareness and opportunities, mainly through on-the-job experiences and connecting women with female role models. Once a woman can imagine herself succeeding in these roles, she is more likely to pursue a position in these male-dominated fields and achieve success in that role.

Mentorships, internships, on-the-job learning experiences, and apprenticeships are essential tools in broadening middle-skill STEM opportunities for women. Community colleges are well-positioned to help employers develop these types of opportunities by building upon existing employer partnerships and relationships.

Jobs for the Future’s (JFF) Resource Guide to Engaging Employers provides a framework for this work. Using JFF’s model, community colleges can engage employers in the movement to bring more women into STEM fields in a multistep, additive process that might look like this:

  • Initiate conversations about the benefits to employers of recruiting from the widest possible skill pool (including women) to fill job openings.
  • Ask employers to invite female tech leaders to serve on community college employer advisory boards. Colleges can invite female tech leaders to serve as classroom instructors and mentors.
  • Work with employers to develop work-based learning opportunities and apprenticeships where cohorts of female students can participate. In addition to providing work experience, bringing groups of women together in a cohort model can help break the isolation that women in male-dominated fields often experience.
  • Use work-based learning opportunities to help female students link into women’s career and technical education employment networks and find mentors and role models to support and inform their education and career pathways.
  • Recruit employers that see the benefits of bringing more women into STEM positions—and understand what it takes to remove barriers to women’s entrance into these positions—to serve as regional and national leaders in these efforts.

Employer-community college partnerships to bring more women into STEM employment are a win-win-win proposition. Employers would have access to a larger and more diversified skilled employment pool; community colleges would meet their goals of offering accessible opportunities to all students; and women would have more and better labor market opportunities.

We can help you take action:

  • JFF has experience engaging employers to open up opportunities for women in technical education and careers. Explore our resources and contact Lexie Waugh awaugh@jff.org for help initiating this work on your campus.
  • Raise these issues with the deans and other leadership at your college and start a working group to focus on these issues, which JFF can help facilitate.
  • Partner with JFF on a National Science Foundation or employer-funded project to support broadening participation of women in STEM through employer engagement on your campus.

See this blog and our Future of Work blog series at: www.jff.org/fowblogs. Also, follow @JFFtweets for resources, latest reports, and events focused on education and economic mobility.