WASHINGTON, DC -- The country needs more young Latinos preparing for careers in science and technology, and one group thinks the key is early exposure to the field.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) jobs are among the fastest-growing in the U.S. economy and among the highest-paying, but many of those jobs go unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there are currently two science and tech job openings for every applicant, while at the same time calculating that nearly half of all new jobs in the next decade will be STEM related.
That's something organizers of the sixth-annual Nuestro Futuro Latino Education Conference want to change. By bringing in students as young as the eighth grade to speak with professionals in the field, the conference looked to spark an early interest among Latino students in the rapidly expanding academic majors and professions of the future.
Attendees said that the November 20 gathering in the nation's capital, co-sponsored by Latino Magazine, is a way to help bust the myth that Latinos and Latinas aren't cut out for careers in STEM fields.
"Unfortunately there is a stereotype that Latinos aren't going to have STEM jobs, so it's real critical that we show kids the potential they have and the opportunities there are to excel," said Jeff "J.J." Curry, a Project Manager at the technology company Cisco Systems. "The future for Latinos in STEM is huge. It is growing by leaps and bounds and there are so many careers available."
Factor in that Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, and it would seem that they could easily fill those positions, but currently just 8 percent of STEM degrees are awarded to Latino graduates, and Latinos represent barely seven percent of the STEM workforce in the United States.
"Opportunities in STEM means that we are at a perfect time to advance the dreams of our parents when many of them first came to this country for us to reach other types of careers and move forward," said José Niño, Vice President of the Latino-owned technology firm MicroTech.
The students in attendance came from schools in the Washington area with a largely Latino population.
Skye Thomas is an eighth grader in Washington, D.C., who says she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up.
"Kids need to learn about math and science and technology. They are so hooked on the Internet but they don't know where it comes from and it's important to know these things."
A self-described math and science enthusiast, Thomas tells NBC News that she laughs when she hears her peers say that those subjects are too hard.
"A lot of kids who say it's too hard don't pay attention in class. It's really not that hard if you pay attention. It's fun to learn."
Fellow eighth grader Michaé Copper concurs.
"It's going to be hard, but you have to be patient and take your time with it," she says, adding that she's particularly fond of math. "I like math because it helps you with most of the things that go on in life. Math has something to do with everything you do," says Copper, who wants to attend Spellman College and become a math and science teacher.
Many of the students at the conference are first-generation, including Maryland senior William Urbina, whose parents are from El Salvador. The 17-year-old would be the first in his family to go to college and is interested in studying environmental engineering.
"I feel like the STEM field is the one that is growing the most. I want to work in the environmental field because there is a global crisis since we are using non-renewable sources of energy and I want to help combat that," said Urbina, who is looking at Stanford University.
Andrea Concepción Bernal Cruz is an 11th grader born in El Salvador who is interested in a nursing career.
"I want to help others and get involved in the community. We are all capable of getting ahead if we work hard."
The teachers and administrators said their students are up to pursuing studies in the STEM field.
"A lot of our students are new to the country and I tell them you've already met the challenge of coming here and adapting to it, so there's no limit to what you can do," says Elizabeth Davis, an administrator at Bladensburg High School in suburban Maryland. "I tell them, you've already overcome something big in your life and you can keep overcoming things."
Sharon Sorto is a high school senior with parents from Honduras and El Salvador who tells NBC News that her interest in becoming a doctor one day comes from being treated for asthma as a young child. "I was helped and I want to give back. STEM careers are important because they provide us a way to impact society more, such as in the medical field, and help others," says Sorto, who is interested in attending either the University of Maryland or Michigan State.
Several of the panelists spoke of the need for young Latinos and Latinas to see that there are many in the community who can serve as examples and role models of what is possible.
"When I was growing up, I didn't have the opportunity to hear from people who were doing things beyond the traditional jobs that I grew up with. My parents were blue collar," says Nelson Pérez, Vice President of Federal Government Affairs at National Grid, a utility company. "I didn't know of any Latinos who were lawyers or doctors or accountants, and I'm here to say that if Nelson Pérez can do it, so can you," says Pérez, a trained lawyer. "STEM fields are vast and wide. I work with engineers. I'm not one, but I understand where they're coming from, and they need me because without government relations, the interactions we have with the government would be very difficult. STEM offers the opportunity to work with people with many different skill sets."
Speakers at the conference included White House Senior Deputy Director of Public Engagement Julie Chávez Rodríguez, who said the federal government is committed to ensuring that the future workforce is prepared.
"In 2009, the president launched the Educate to Innovate campaign which included federal investment in public/private partnerships, focusing on two goals: helping to inspire young people to pursue STEM in the first place and providing opportunities to those young people with the support and tools that they need to be able to succeed in STEM careers. To date the campaign has generated more than a billion dollars in financial and in-kind support for these kinds of STEM programs," she said, adding, "This is something we prioritize. We know that jobs in the future are going to require our Latino and Latina students to have the knowledge and the skill sets that 21st century jobs will require."