• Pam Ray

"Hidden Figures" - Timeless Messages Parents, Mentors, Education & Jobs


New pathways to education and jobs are evolving as dramatically as our first mission to the moon.



Hidden Figures


As a child, Katherine Johnson loved to count things. She counted steps on the church and dishes she washed. She knew how many paces it took to get just about anywhere in her home town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. But perhaps the most important thing the future NASA “computer” counted on was her dad.


Johnson, whose life and contribution to NASA’s early space program is portrayed in the current movie, “Hidden Figures” established herself as a gifted child in grade school. Her father, Joshua Coleman, placed a high value on education. When it came time for Kathryn to move on academically, he moved the family 120 miles to be sure she continued her schooling. All of this he did in the midst of racism and just before the rise of equal rights and women’s rights movements.


“Like Joshua Coleman, parents remain the key influencers in their kids’ college and career decisions. Coleman, in the face of tremendous adversity, made it a priority to make certain his young mathematical genius got the education she needed, propelling her into a career that became critical to the survival of John Glenn as the first American to Orbit the earth.

What This Means for Parents


Today, parents can’t afford to be hidden figures in their child’s STEM education. Here are some things you can share with your children about their education, and about their futures. If you want to be a doctor, a filmmaker, an auto mechanic or teach physical education, indeed if you want to be employed, you’re going to need a an interdisciplinary background that exposes you to varying levels of science, technology, engineering, art and math.


There is Snapchat, texts from girls/boys, soccer and summer camp. There is video streaming and whatever-on-demand. Here’s the irony: the very technology that may distract your kids is the stuff they’ll be implementing in their careers. Katherine Johnson’s childhood obsession with counting turned her into a human computer. Your kid’s obsession with a screen could inspire technological creativity. Gaming obsessions can become a major in Interactive Entertainment or Game Design. A love of drawing can become digital illustration.


You don’t have to have your sights set on a career at NASA to take STEM classes. The technological revolution is now embedded in jobs across the vast majority of our economy.”

In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that over 80% of the fastest-growing occupations, like health care and I-T required knowledge of math and science. Now, a majority of jobs (up to 78% of middle-skill jobs) which don’t require a 4-year college degree mandate digital proficiency requiring STEM competencies.


As awareness about our transforming workforce grows, the realm of what is considered a STEM job is expanding exponentially and so is the gap in defining, measuring and comparing STEM vs. non-STEM jobs. Over the past ten years, many young adults saw this change in a flash from the time they entered college to the time they began looking for a job. A decade ago, unemployment in “STEM jobs” was half the national average. The current unemployment numbers lack STEM defined parameters but painfully bring to light the importance of our role as parents in finding the new edge to support them in this STEM economy.


Consider these not so ‘Hidden Figures’:


1) The current unemployment rate for young adults is 10%, about twice the overall rate.


2) Forty five percent of recent college grads with 4-year degrees are underemployed and according to the Georgetown University, Center on Education & the Workforce, they account for 40% of the unemployed population.


3) About 15% of young adults are living at home. Forty-eight percent of those are age 18-22 and 30% are age 23-27, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center.


Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book, “Hidden Figures.” She knew about Johnson and all the black, female NASA computers because her dad worked at NASA too. So did many of their relatives, friends and neighbors. Shetterly writes, “As a child, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”


Parents and other mentors need to be the conductors – whether by example or by instruction. Provide exposure by spending a Saturday afternoon at a local career fair. Spend one-on-one time exploring market trends which parallel your child’s interests. It’s up to us, the Joshua Colemans, the dads who work at Langley, the single moms and the soccer dads, the parents who provide a family support system (like Katherine’s mom who took care of her kids while she worked) to provide the gentle steerage so critical to the future of the technological economy and our kids.


New pathways to education and jobs are evolving as dramatically as our first mission to the moon. As parents and mentors, we must continue to place a high value on education and skills needed for today’s transforming, technology-based, economy and re-learn what that means for the 21st century workforce.

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