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Career opportunities for mathematicians.

In the mid 1960s while still a Morgan State University physics major (who was thought of as a math major by others in the math department), I was intrigued by a very interesting question posed by one of my fellow students. We were involved in an informal conversation when one of them said, "I wonder what type of job a math major can get after graduation, besides teaching." And then came the question, "Is an employer going to pay a math graduate to work problems?" To appreciate this question, one has to realize that math majors spend a lot of time working on mathematical problems and proofs.

Because of the lack of emphasis, at that time, on career opportunities for African Americans, and especially for women, I had not even considered the problem much less thought about an answer. I was too busy enjoying the challenges of mathematics, physics, and German. That question became more significant when I reported to my first job after graduation, as a mathematician/data analyst at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

It was not until I arrived at NASA/GSFC that I found out what mathematicians at GSFC did. They applied their knowledge to the development and support of computer systems that solved space-related problems or supported space-related activities. For many of you, this will be hard to believe; however, in 1964 when I graduated from Morgan, there were no computer courses offered at Morgan, and I had not seen a computer except in science fiction movies.

Due to my background in math, physics, and foreign languages, I was not intimidated by my lack of knowledge of computers. I viewed it as a challenge and started taking classes to learn everything that I could about computers. In addition, I took advantage of opportunities for hands-on experience in running main frame computers (during that period, it was usually hands-off of the computer by users). This undergraduate preparation in problem solving, critical thinking, logic, abstract algebra, and languages enabled me to maintain confidence and successfully master this new technology. My first major assignment involved developing a computer system, using assembly language, to decode a stream of data coming from an experiment on a satellite in real-time and convert them to a form that the scientist could read and quickly determine the health of the experiment and whether or not commands should be sent to the spacecraft to correct any problems.

Career Opportunities for Mathematicians

Even though there is a greater emphasis on career opportunities today, especially for African Americans and women, it is not surprising that the question "What do mathematicians do?" still persists. For example, how many of you who are reading this article know or know of a contemporary mathematician who is not an educator? My guess would be not many, if any at all.

People with strong mathematics backgrounds have a wide variety of options for careers and can be found in education, business, industry, and government. Mathematicians teach at all levels, with a BS required for the high school level and a PhD required for the university level. Business and industry offer mathematicians many opportunities as accountants, statisticians, programmers or systems analysts. With an MS degree, mathematicians can also conduct research for communications, energy, manufacturing or transportation industries. Insurance companies employ mathematicians as actuaries to calculate risks and help design policy. Some mathematicians work as consultants, applying their expertise to solving industrial problems. And government agencies hire mathematicians for activities such as: analyzing census data, gathering economics information, planning space flights, and analyzing military needs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, based on 1990 census data, there were 21,603 workers who were classified as mathematicians (the top three employment categories were government, industry, and manufacturing); 14,800 statisticians (38 percent mostly in research and testing services; 27 percent in federal government; 20 percent in finance, insurance and real estate; and 15 percent in manufacturing); and 13,000 actuaries (63 percent in finance, insurance and real estate; 35 percent in miscellaneous business, engineering and architectural services; and one percent in federal government). Of the government mathematicians cited, 83 percent were employed by the Department of Defense, 13 percent by NASA, and four percent by the Department of Commerce.

The Department of Labor's long-term projection for the need for people with strong math backgrounds looks good. By year 2005, the number of actuaries needed will increase from 13,000 to 18,000 (33 percent change), statisticians will increase from 15,000 to 18,000, and mathematicians will increase from approximately 22,000 to 24,000. In spite of the way the numbers look (nine percent increase), the demand for mathematicians will still be great. However, the trend will be that many will be hired and classified as something else (e.g., computer scientist or engineer, if the candidate also has the necessary science and/or computer science background.) Therefore, those who will be classified as something else are not reflected in these projections.

By now you are probably wondering how much money mathematicians make. The 1990 College Counselors survey found that the average entry-level salary for actuaries was $28,300 (slightly less for those who had not completed their actuary exams); and mathematicians with a BS, MS, and PhD earned $27,000, $30,100, and $42,800 respectively. The salaries were higher for industry than government or education. And new PhD recipients in research, teaching and research, and business and industry earned a median salary of $30,000, $36,500, and $49,500, respectively, according to the 1990 survey of the American Mathematical Society.

Major Trends That Will Impact the 21st Century Workforce

As we approach the year 2000 and beyond, it has been projected that the composition of the workforce will be very different from that of the past and the type of jobs that will be most abundantly available will require strong backgrounds in math and science. In Opportunity 2000: Creating Affirmative Action Strategies For a Changing Workforce, which prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor, the Hudson Institute identified seven major trends that will revolutionize tomorrow's workforce. Of the trends identified, the following five will be significant to African Americans with strong math backgrounds:

* The number of workers will fall--Between 1988 and the end of the century, the number of young workers aged 16-24 will drop by almost two million, or eight percent, due to "baby boomers'" decision to have fewer children than their parents had.

* More women will be on the job--By year 2000, 47 percent of the workforce will be women and 61 percent of American women will be employed; white men will make up 15 percent of the new entrants to the workforce.

* One-third of new workers will be Americans of color--The number of African Americans in the workforce will continue to increase at a higher rate than whites over the next 20 years because of their more rapid population increases; from 1970-1984, the net average population increase for African Americans was 15.8 percent, compared to 8.3 percent for whites. This trend is expected to continue through the end of the century.

* African-American women will make up the largest share of the non-white labor force, outnumbering African-American men in the workforce by year 2000.

* Most new jobs will be in services and information--As factory jobs become more mechanized and automated, a greater percentage of a product's value will result from the various services that occur before and after a product is manufactured; the associated service jobs will employ more people overall and at higher wages than the factories that produced the products.

* The new jobs will require higher skills--Most new jobs, especially those in the fastest growing categories, will demand much higher language, math, and reasoning skills than many current jobs; the vast majority of jobs will require post-secondary education; and jobs for scientists (whether natural, computer or mathematics scientists) will increase by 68 percent.

Because of the reduced number of young workers, who will be entering the workforce by the end of the century, and the retirements of existing workers, there will be a number of job opportunities available throughout the organizations. Since many of these jobs require a higher level of skills, they will be ideally suited for African Americans with strong math backgrounds.

A major concern discussed in Opportunity 2000 was the lack of sufficient numbers of people of color (both African-American and Hispanic) to fill the new jobs in the 21st century. The fastest growing occupations will be those related to continuing the spread of computer technology (e.g., operations research analysts, who perform data analyses of operations of manufacturing and other business organizations in order to improve efficiency; and computer systems analysts and programmers to improve methods of satisfying the expanding data processing needs of organizations) according to the 1990-1991 edition of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. And the positions which will have the greatest growth will be those for general managers and top executives, whose numbers are projected to increase because of the increasing complexity of industrial and commercial organizations; and technical and related support occupations. Each of these areas is expected to grow much faster than the average 15.3 percent rate anticipated for total overall employment from 1988-2000. Therefore, for African Americans with strong math backgrounds, this should provide a "golden opportunity."


David Hedgeley, Jr. is a mathematician at NASA/Ames Research Center in California. He is among a small number of mathematicians at Ames who formulate creative mathematical models to describe physical problems such as vortex reconstruction and the hidden line problem. The solutions to some of these problems can be implemented on the computer and some of them cannot. To be successful in this type of work, one must be a creative thinker and be willing to work with applications in which the mathematics used are not well known and understood formulas. Hedgeley has observed that many mathematicians tend to gravitate to things that they are comfortable doing, like engineering.

Hedgeley offered some insight into what it takes to be a successful mathematician. He pointed out that once an African American is hired as a mathematician, technical competence should not be an issue in his or her success. Then his or her social skills become important, i.e., people, speaking and writing skills. He or she should avoid being confrontational and should write and publish technical papers. Hedgeley sums up his advice for young African-American mathematicians very well. He "likes to see people who are competent with dignity--not subservient."

Giving Back to the Community

African-American mathematicians, with their unique set of skills, are in an excellent position to return something to the community that could have a major impact on its overall preparation for the 21st century. With the generally poor performance by African-American students as a group and the small number of African-American math educators at all levels, mathematicians should seriously consider teaching. This could take one of many forms: 1) a full-time teaching position; 2) obtaining a teaching certificate after graduation and spending a couple years teaching at the primary or secondary level; 3) serving as a part-time college instructor; or 4) teaching as a second career after retirement.

In her vision, Dr. Beverly Anderson, professor of mathematics at the University of the District of Columbia, sees "...teachers of mathematics at all levels confidently analyzing, discussing, and using quantitative data, understanding the connections between mathematics and other disciplines, and using technological tools to enhance instruction... students having the opportunity to be competitive at the national and international levels, and more students and teachers exposed to a learning environment that will make it possible for them to become prepared to contribute to the society of the 21st century." If African-American mathematicians were to commit to helping to make this vision a reality, they would be making a very valuable contribution to the community by helping others prepare for the career opportunities that will be available in the next century.

Valerie Thomas is assistant chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
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Title Annotation:Career Reports/Mathematics and Science; Annual Jobs Issue
Author:Thomas, Valerie L.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Careers in nursing.
Next Article:Opportunities in the military.

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