Untapped Power: U.S. Must Hire More Young Women of Color

Editor’s Note: As we end another Labor Day weekend, it’s a pleasure for me to share this editorial from women leaders in Minnesota, who are reminding us that young women, and particularly young women of color, are a huge untapped resource in our economy. The need for employers to hire more young women of color is not isolated to Minnesota — it is an issue that is being addressed by a national collaborative of women’s foundations working to ensure that young women of color can prosper economically and live safe, healthy lives. This editorial is c0-authored by Jennifer Alstad (Founder & CEO, bswing), Debra Fitzpatrick (Co-director, Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy, University of Minnesota), and Lee Roper-Batker (President & CEO, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota)

Members of the Young Women’s Cabinet in Minnesota, along with Women’s Foundation of Minnesota CEO Lee Roper-Batker and Minnesota Governor, Mark Dayton.

Young women offer an amazing talent base, and our economy needs them. Like most states, Minnesota faces a significant labor market gap, and businesses here and around the country are feeling it. By 2020, our regional economic development group, Greater MSP, projects that Minnesota’s 16-county metro area will face a shortage of 120,000 workers to keep pace with projected gross domestic product (GDP). Another 112,500 workers will be needed to keep up with GDP in Greater Minnesota.  

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce encourages businesses to cast a broader net and look for hidden talent pools. Across the world, economies are looking to the underemployment of women as a key untapped resource necessary for economic growth. Seventeen percent, or 50,000, of our state’s young women, ages 23-30, are not participating in the paid labor force. Young women report that opportunities, access, and support are limited, particularly for young women of color. The statistics bear this out, and in Minnesota we’re working to change this. 

One public-private partnership working to address this issue is the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota, a seven-year, $9 million initiative centered on growing the leadership and economic power of young women of color. Co-Led by Governor Mark Dayton, this innovative cross-sector partnership aims to change the institutions and systems that have prevented equal access to opportunity due to gender, race, place, ability, or sexuality, and ensure that all young women can thrive.

When we study the research on how to help both help young women and businesses thrive, we find that there is a large labor supply of young women, particularly young women of color, who are needed in all skill-levels in the workforce. We need 34,800 workers in high-skill jobs, many of which include STEM occupations. In Minnesota, among STEM workers aged 23 to 25, 80% are men. Young women make up only 20% of the STEM workforce, with less than 1% comprised of women of color and young women with disabilities. Our research shows that race and gender stereotypes lead to fewer STEM opportunities for young women of color. Along with caregiving demands and lack of knowledge about opportunities, many young women are kept from entering this workforce pool. We need fresh ideas and innovative approaches to create new possibilities for young women and our state. 

Build the Pipeline, Invest in Support

In Moorhead, Minnesota, software engineer Betty Gronneberg launched uCodeGirl to bridge the gender gap in technology so that young girls can confidently pursue STEM jobs. She makes technology accessible, relevant, and fun for girls ages 12-18. She’s building the pipeline, and it’s working. Take the story of Mary, a middle school girl who was anxious when she arrived at UCodeGirl’s summer tech camp for girls. We know from studies that girls’ attraction to STEM activities decreases in middle school as they react to social pressures, lack of role models, and gender stereotypes. At camp, Mary met other girls curious about STEM and worked with them to design and code t-shirts that light up as they sense the beating of their hearts. After this, Mary was hooked on STEM. She returned to UCodeGirl to participate in a national STEM design competition by brainstorming and prototyping an app that will help to alleviate stress in teenagers. Today, as she works toward a career in technology, Mary continues to develop her skills with the help of a female STEM mentor she’s been paired with through uCodeGirl.

Both Dunwoody College of Technology and Saint Paul College are working to increase women’s representation in STEM fields, but success will not be achieved without new approaches to helping students overcome obstacles. With help from philanthropy, they have created innovative cohort-based programs with targeted recruitment, job and education readiness, mentoring, and customized wraparound services including childcare, eldercare, transportation assistance, and financial literacy.

Tish, a young LGBTQ woman in Dunwoody’s Electrical Design & Maintenance program, became homeless and lost her medical insurance after her first semester. Instead of discontinuing her education, Dunwoody intervened with a Women in Technical Careers scholarship that covered the first-year tuition gap, helped her find affordable housing, enroll in the state’s health insurance program, and get a job as a student worker on campus. Dunwoody connected Tish with a mentor from her industry who helped her apply for jobs and increased her network in her industry. Through these connections, she was able to secure a job at a local company where she now earns $25.50 an hour and loves her job. Programs that support unconventional students with wraparound services are necessary to increase the ranks of women in STEM and other nontraditional careers.

Tech Needs Women, Women Need Training

Opportunities for our young women can also be found in medium-skill jobs. Underrepresentation is dramatically evident in two-year technical programs. Take this example: the percentage of women who complete two-year technical programs in Minnesota. For construction, it’s 3%; mechanical, 5%; and precision production, it’s 5.3%. Women remain significantly underrepresented, making up less than 10% of the field in high-growth jobs such as welders, mechanics, carpenters, construction, and production.

Sectors across the state agree: we need a change. In order to fill these jobs tomorrow, investments are being made today in training for nontraditional careers with support from government agencies, foundations, and the state’s Women in High Wage, High Demand, Nontraditional Jobs Competitive Grant Program. We see young women of color benefiting from state support to train women for middle-skill jobs in construction, trucking, and the trades in our technical schools. This is a great start, and to build women’s representation in nontraditional sectors, businesses, government, and philanthropies must work together in building the pipeline and accessibility as we invest in skills, with an emphasis on young women of color.

The bulk of available jobs are in lower-skill occupations, including personal care attendants, retail, and food preparation. Young women, especially women of color, already bring their talents disproportionately to lower-skill jobs. If we want to continue to fill these jobs, we must make them more attractive, sustainable, and family-supporting, and create more opportunities for advancement to middle-skill positions.

Business needs to be a big part of the solution for engaging the talents of young women in the labor force. Our research, Impacts of the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota on the State’s Labor Market, recommends investing in a diverse and supportive workforce and culture: broadening recruitment for paid summer internships to include community or technical colleges, building mentorship networks for new hires, and reducing unconscious biases in HR practices. The Blueprint for Action also recommends ensuring young women of color have opportunities and pathways to high-skill, high-wage careers and jobs, increasing participation in STEM fields and technical careers and increasing opportunities and pay for women in traditionally female-dominated jobs.

As philanthropies, corporations and government seek solutions to workforce shortages, we know that young women of color are an untapped solution. Our future prosperity is interwoven, and it’s time we listen and invest now in what young women need. We call on our country to recognize young women of color as critical to our economic growth and competitiveness, and important contributors to a high quality of life. 


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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