The economic future of America lies in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In many regards, that future is already here. STEM workers are maintaining the country’s reputation as innovators by generating new ideas, companies, products and industries. And according to the United States Department of Commerce, employment opportunities in STEM are booming, with 24.4 percent growth over the last decade. But the workforce is not keeping up with the growth. There are currently two STEM job openings for every qualified job seeker.

This is a national crisis. To fill shrinking applicant pools, companies are increasingly hiring foreign-born STEM experts. But a rising Hispanic youth population here at home offers a perfect solution. Indeed, Latinos are the nation’s second fastest-growing ethnic population and, on average, they’re significantly younger.

This is the future of the STEM workforce. America must invest deeply in Hispanic youth, not only in order to stay competitive, but also to develop fresh leadership dedicated to the transformation, innovation and growth of our economy. The nation’s future depends on this.

Breaking down barriers

Empowering Hispanic youth to pursue STEM fields won’t be easy. Hispanic students aren’t sufficiently exposed to STEM at the K-12 levels and they are underrepresented in undergraduate and graduate STEM programs. Given that less than two percent of the STEM workforce is Hispanic, there are not enough visible role models for students to emulate.

In addition, less than half of Hispanic high school graduates qualify for enrollment in a four-year university. Some 68 percent attend community college, which decreases the odds they will major in a STEM field. On top of that, many do not finish due to lack of funding or time.

Yet there is hope. Overall, the number of students enrolling in STEM fields is rising, and according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the number of Hispanic students enrolling in STEM studies increased by 33 percent from 1996 to 2004. However, despite the uptick in enrollment, more must be done. Only nine percent of STEM degrees and certificates went to Latinos in 2013.

Hispanic students aren’t sufficiently exposed to STEM at the K-12 levels and they are underrepresented in undergraduate and graduate STEM programs.

A comprehensive approach

One organization leading the charge for Hispanics in STEM is the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). SHPE’s vision of a world where Hispanics are highly valued and influential as leading innovators, scientists, mathematicians and engineers can be realized. And by empowering the Hispanic community around STEM, it is possible to change the face of America’s future innovators.

Comprised of a national network of nearly 250 chapters, SHPE provides a variety of programming, services and resources for Hispanic students and professionals, including hosting the largest annual Hispanic STEM convention in the nation. We offer student scholarships, job assistance, professional development and mentoring opportunities — all crucial to igniting and fostering a student’s passion for STEM and helping them stay in school and graduate.

Early engagement and retention are two of SHPE’s highest priorities. We are devising strategies to help Latinos finish degrees and working with community colleges to include them in vital scholarship programs. And our chapters are actively growing our SHPE “familia” from the earliest age. Through the Noche de Ciencias program, SHPE undergraduate and professional chapters invite K-12 students to participate in hands-on STEM activities and excite them about STEM while also providing important role models — our chapter members themselves. We also give parents college resources to help them prepare for the journey ahead and help explain the benefits of supporting their children’s desire to study STEM. Parents are often cited as the most critical influencer in the decision to pursue careers in STEM.

STEM workplaces are quickly becoming environments where diversity is valued for giving companies a competitive edge. Supporting Hispanic youth as they engage in these fields opens doors for the future leaders of both these companies and the country.