Why an Aerospace Giant Is Backing an Effort to Diversify the Engineering Field

The aerospace field, along with engineering in general, has a longstanding diversity problem. Now, one of its largest players is throwing some serious weight behind the National Society of Black Engineers and historically black colleges and universities to try to move the needle.  

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has put a lot of effort in the past few years into improving its own diversity, and has an active STEM education funding program. This recently announced $2 million grant, a relatively large gift from the company’s foundation, will go toward NSBE for student aid at HBCUs, internships at the company, and other academic and career support.

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The grant is part of a wave of STEM-related companies trying to bolster what many believe to be an insufficient American workforce, as well as addressing a pervasive lack of diversity in their fields. 

How bad is it? Pretty bad, and it’s attracted heightened attention lately, due to the sheer power and whiteness of Silicon Valley companies. For some context, in 2010, the NSF counted black men and women at just 5 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Black degree holders also have a harder time finding employment, and there’s evidence that companies are failing to tap into the existing pool of talent.

This is coupled with a perceived overall shortage of up-and-coming American STEM talent, ranging in severity depending on whom you ask. 

As a result, many of the country’s major STEM-related companies have philanthropic efforts aimed at supporting education and improving diversity in the ranks. They range from Intel’s recent $300 million commitment to hosting science fairs. 


The aerospace industry has its own share of workforce problems. In 2014, the head of the Aerospace Industries Association announced an urgent need to attract more homegrown and diverse engineering talent, citing impending retirements and not enough grads. 

That need is heightened for defense contractors, which work closely with the federal government, often under requirements that military systems must be designed by U.S. citizens, meaning they can’t outsource the problem.

Northrop Grumman is one of the industry’s largest players—the company recently landed a $21 billion military contract to build a new long-range bomber—and has emerged in recent years as a pretty active player in addressing diversity issues.

This new $2 million program will provide the company with an inside track on hiring and training top talent through the HBCU programs and student internships. Meanwhile, it helps the National Society of Black Engineers move toward its goal of increasing African American engineering bachelor’s degree recipients from 3,500 to 10,000 by 2025.  

STEM diversity is a daunting problem—much like institutional racism, it’s a pervasive issue that individual programs struggle to impact. 

One positive thing about this particular program, though, is that it’s led by a minority student-governed organization like NSBE, in coordination with HBCUs. The society has 400 chapters and 31,000 members, and addresses a variety of challenges involved, including early education, college, community building, and career support. It's just the kind of partner you'd hope corporations would turn to.