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An urgent plea: Give people from underrepresented communities reasons to work in tech

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

The tech sector has been shaken by the culmination of factors, that have -- in part-- been brewing for nearly a decade: a rise in the instances and sophistication of cyber attacks on organizations and our data; a growing skills gap that’s left employers struggling to fill mission-critical roles (job vacancies across all sectors grew by 44% over the summer, compared to the three months prior, and 10% of all open roles are now in the tech sector); and a noticeable lack of diversity within tech companies. However, one of these is, arguably, the cause of the other two. Our sector’s historic unwillingness to bring in prospective workers with nontraditional (non-degree) backgrounds and to hire people from underrepresented backgrounds --women, people of color, those with disabilities, and people from the LGBTQ+ community -- and to ensure that they are valued members of teams, with upward workplace mobility, is leaving us exposed. It’s also leaving us without the fresh perspectives and talent we badly need to solve the most pressing tech problems of our day. 

Participating in what’s sometimes coined “performative diversity,” many tech employers have made cursory efforts to hire more diverse people, but these initiatives have largely proven to be unsustained, or have turned out to be nothing more than surface level attempts to fix what is a deeply ingrained industry bias. This bias, as bad as it is for workers, impacts far more than just the makeup of workplaces and the chances that anyone who isn’t a white man will rise through the ranks to tech leadership. This bias has a deeply negative impact on the work itself. In Artificial Intelligence diverse backgrounds and those with diverse thoughts and perspectives on the world) is perpetuating and creating systems that will ultimately cause more discrimination and bias. Algorithms that detect hate speech on social media are a great example of how destructive bias works in practice. A Forbes piece on the discriminatory underbelly of the tech sector states that “Activists, educators, and tech experts are making the case that Instagram’s arbitrary definition of what is “safe” disproportionately impacts members of vulnerable communities. When their content is blocked from the feed, their ability to… benefit from Instagram’s digital economy -- is limited.” To sum it up, a truly diverse AI environment would ensure that the very people training the machines and creating the definitions are themselves diverse, and therefore are building tech with inclusivity in mind.  Yet, to date, has the sector given women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, and people from other disadvantaged backgrounds the right reasons to want to be here?

Paying lip service to inclusivity

This is a direct plea: if our sector is going to survive and withstand the pressures we are facing during and immediately after this global crisis, tech employers must do more than just pay lip service to inclusivity. There is an urgent need for those in tech to create more equitable, incentivized, and welcoming environments in which new workers can thrive and contribute in meaningful ways...and in ways that equate to earning a decent wage. That means giving those who have historically been blocked from accessing upskilling and educational opportunities, access to the resources --and skills-- that they need to thrive in roles within high-demand job categories. Offering apprenticeships, employer-funded certifications, and hiring from outside the typical degree-holding pool of candidates, are among the best ways organizations can do that. 

The “earn-while-you-learn” apprenticeship model is a proven strategy for workplace inclusivity, and for giving more people a realistic on-ramp to a job. If people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, can’t afford to travel or take time off from their job to attend an unpaid training program, what’s the point? Apprenticeships and certifications also offer a built-in, long-term retention strategy for employers, in that people who know their employers have invested in their sustained success are likely to stick around far longer than those who feel disposable. That many apprenticeships include a mentor --a trusted colleague the apprentice can come to for support-- is among the pathway’s best features, and a benefit that will serve people from underrepresented demographics well. (The “fish out of water” syndrome, in which a woman or person of color comes in to work in an all-white, male workplace, can be a source of frustration, conflict, and even attrition, as they are often left to fend for themselves and can’t see themselves reflected in their organization.) To solve both the skills gap and the confidence gap --the pervasive thinking that only certain types of people are valued, or that someone must be, for example, a maths or coding genius to get a job in tech-- we need a variety of entry-points and on-ramps into the tech workforce. That must include pathways that give people from diverse backgrounds the assuredness to understand that not only can they get a job...but that their perspectives and contributions are wanted and valued in tech.  

Thinking differently

While tech’s hiring habits haven’t changed much in a decade or more, the wider business world is changing around us, and the threats are evolving. If we continue to hire only from a pool of candidates who have learned what they know about tech from textbooks and lectures, we will surely fail as a sector, losing out to adversaries in cybercrime who do know how to adapt, and who do know how to be resourceful. These people don’t care what degree someone holds. Apprenticeships and employer-funded certifications offer organizations the chance to bring people into the fold who can match theoretical knowledge with an even greater level of practical application and who can be scrappy in their approach to getting things done. Apprentices and people certified while on the job gain priceless skills like problem-solving, analytical ability, interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and so much more. 

The time has come for our sector to think differently about how we hire, who we hire, and about the skills we value in the workplace. Let’s give the people who have the most to gain from careers in tech the incentives they need to join us. Because the truth is that we need them more than they need us.

Graham Hunter, VP of Skills, CompTIA

Graham Hunter is the VP for Skills Certifications at the IT trade association, CompTIA. Graham helps governments and organisations build a workforce capable of technical innovation, protecting valuable information and addressing the skills gap.