Q&A: What tech firms can do to grow their Black workforce

Research firm Jobs for the Future surveyed more than 1,000 Black adults and analyzed 200 organizations with successful strategies for hiring Black tech workers. JFF vice president and report lead author Michael Collins discusses the problems — and solutions.

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The technology industry is expected to see a 13% uptick in employment through 2030. Black Americans, however, are notably underrepresented in the industry.

While Black workers account for almost 12% of the overall workforce in the US, Black men represent 7.4% of the technology labor pool, and Black women represent just 3%.

In February, Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit research and workplace equity strategy organization, published the results of an analysis of more than 200 start-ups, schools, nonprofits, and other programs focused on the development of Black talent in technology.

Developed with support from Comcast NBCUniversal, the report “Purpose-Built to Advance Equity: Expanding Opportunities in Tech for Black Americans” also surveyed more than 1,000 Black adults, and found that six in 10 who are not currently working in the tech industry would consider a career change to work in the sector.

However, more than half of those surveyed said they were unsure where to start (55%) or felt they lacked the financial resources (51%), skills (52%), or industry connections (45%) to launch a tech career.

The JFF study also found 55% of those surveyed reported never having a career mentor. The report found that many of the start-ups it researched that successfully recruited and fostered Black workers had a dedicated focus on providing mentors and support from other technologists of color.

"The most successful models are not only helping Black talent build skills and secure employment, but also making long-term investments in mentorship, social capital, and networks that enable Black professionals to access — and sustain — careers in technology,” said Michael Collins, vice president at JFF and a lead author of the report.

Michael Collins JFF Jobs for the Future

Michael Collins, vice president at JFF

Computerworld spoke with Collins to get insights on why there is a scarcity of Black learners and workers in the technology marketplace and what strategies organizations can implement to change that. The following are edited portions of the interview:

What prompted your organization to create the report now? "We have the Racial Economic Equity Initiative at JFF. It was created out of a response to what was happening in the country after the murder of George Floyd. Not just that — in the labor market, going back to the spring of 2020, we saw that the historically low unemployment rates for Black people — when the pandemic happened and unemployment exploded, you could see that most of that low unemployment for Black people represented low-wage jobs. They were in low-end healthcare jobs, food service, hospitality.

"And we decided we wanted to do more as an organization to ensure that Black workers and learners had access to the programs of study and industries that weren’t in harm’s way of the pandemic — in this case, working jobs that would be automated or disrupted by technology.

"We focused on access to digital and IT careers as a first start."

Why did the pandemic disproportionately affect Black workers in terms of employment? "I know there’s a lot of debate around whether or not there is structural racism or discrimination in this country; in our assessment, very simply multiple interlocking systems — whether it be housing, transportation, education, training — were all part of it. We do see systematic bias. And it shows up in our education, workforce development, employment data.

"Let’s be clear and honest with each other, Blacks were concentrated in racially homogenous areas as a result of our housing policies. In the United States, there is significant racial segregation in where people live that has implications for where you work. Black people in this country are in some cases living a considerable ways away from employment opportunities. Things like public transportation also become an issue.

"We know that Black workers are concentrated in certain industries, and in this case the disproportionate impact of the pandemic — if you were overwhelmingly in food service or other lower-wage jobs, like home healthcare aids or certified nurse’s assistants — they couldn’t work from home. They had to go out and into harm’s way, so there are structural elements that contribute to some of the gaps we’re seeing in employment and advancement."

When people talk about systemic racism, often they’ll point to civil rights to discount it. So, is there actual systemic bias or is it more of a social construct? "I think it’s related, so, segregation and bias by law. Whether it was the Brown v Board [of Education], the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act — all of those legal victories did not take away [social] practice.

"Something may have been legal like Fair Housing. When that law was passed, the restrictive housing covenants…and realtors associations and homeowners associations — were still there. And it’s some of the patterns we still see today. So, there is a legal part of it, but then there’s also a social part of it.

"It’s not a strong argument to suggest that because laws have been passed, discrimination is not a real issue. Some of it has to do with the social contract, and the social contract today has a real emphasis on merit and hard work, and how we should be able to live in areas where there are good resources and schools, and we like to say that race is not a factor. But when we look at the data, race is a very salient variable. There’s no escaping that.

"Let’s say you choose to live in a predominantly white community, and you say it’s because the schools are better — and that’s probably true…, because that area was restricted from other race people. There were probably housing covenants that kept property values high, which are pegged to school funding.

"So, even though discrimination in housing is illegal, you still see some of the racial patterns. Because an area where Black people could live were red-lined…, it created a dynamic where there were racial patterns. And you still see that today. It’s a real leap to believe the racial patterns in where we live and the access we have to schooling has no connection to the red-lining.

"I’m sometimes not surprised that people aren’t aware of the extent of the housing covenants; they’re not aware that Black veterans could not benefit in the same way from the G.I. Bill [after WWII]. Black families were not able to benefit from the no-cost, low-cost mortgages coming out of the New Deal. These things really drove the growth of the middle class.

"Not being able to leverage the G.I. Bill at a time when the economy was shifting from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy had a tremendous affect."

What’s at the heart of “occupational segregation” in technology? "The heart of occupational segregation in technology…does come down to some of these systemic issues.

"Black learners and workers face systemic barriers to access and advancement at every stage along the way to careers in technology. In their early years, Black learners are more likely than their white peers to lack access to broadband internet service and other technology resources at home and at school. They’re also less likely to attend schools that offer a foundational computer science course, and are underrepresented in Advanced Placement computer science courses.

"At the post-secondary level, Black learners are more likely to attend under-resourced schools and require student loans. They often experience teaching and curricula that lack cultural competence, and they rarely encounter Black professors in computer science and related departments.

"Even when Black workers do acquire in-demand degrees and credentials, hiring algorithms are ruling them out. Research consistently shows that Black workers confront racial discrimination in hiring, wages, and advancement."

Is there also simply a problem that fewer Black Americans choose careers in technology, and if so, why? "It is true fewer select technology, but that goes back to what we just talked about. So, are you aware of [a technology career]? Have you been prepared for it? Do you have relationships that could help you understand why technology could be promising for you?

"The other thing I think is really important is typically in tech…. We hear hiring managers say, 'We care about DE&I [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion], but we just can’t find the workers. There’s a skills gap.'

"We’ve found that the underrepresentation of Black Americans in the tech sector is not merely a pipeline issue. The percentage of Black Americans among college graduates with degrees in computer science and computer engineering has been found to be twice as high as the percentage of Black Americans in the workforces of leading tech companies.

"And in our research on innovative organizations expanding pathways into tech careers for Black learners and workers, we found that there are many organizations providing Black learners and workers with training in tech, and thousands of Black Americans being trained. But employers are not tapping into the pool.

"Qualified Black workers who meet the criteria for jobs aren’t getting hired or paid equally with equal consideration for professional advancement. Even tests designed to be objective and meritocratic for hiring disproportionately rule out Black candidates who are equally or more qualified for opportunities.

"Big employers will say, 'We can’t find Black tech talent,' and you ask them if they’ve recruited at an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], and they haven’t. So, it’s yes, there is an element of choice, and Black learners in post-secondary schools and training are less likely to be in high-growth and high-demand programs of study, including tech — that’s true for some of the systemic reasons we said. But there are also things employers can do and even post-secondary institutions can do.

"Going all the way down to middle-school and high-school counseling, how do we begin to help people understand there are a range of areas you can work  digital and technology. The economy is increasingly digital — have you considered that? Our counseling and career navigation systems, they’re not really helping Black learners access this incredible opportunity, but there’s some implicit bias there.

"So, we have to unpack that. It’s not just simply that there’s no supply. I think employers have to work differently. I think education and training also has to work differently to increase access and opportunity in digital and IT."

Your study shows Black men comprise just 7.4% of the tech workforce, and Black women account for just 3%. In what way is that disparity commensurate with a general disparity between men and women? "I think in the labor market, Black women are in a double bind. There’s the issue of race and then the issue of gender. In comparison to white men and Black men, Black women earn less on the dollar. They’re less likely to advance. They’re less likely to have a mentor. They’re less likely to be sponsored. All of these things contribute to the gaps we see.

"We also see this extreme…marginalization in venture capital. Only one percent of venture capital goes to Black folks in tech and from that, only one-third of a percent goes to Black women. Child care also falls on women more than men. Things like that I think we’ll have to address to increase women in tech.

"So, Black women face very serious hurdles. We want to look at how do we address some of the gender disparities. If you look at the scan, you’ll see some of the organizations that we identified, that’s their specialty. So, Black Girls Code, or Girls Who Code, /dev/color, some of those organizations are built to address gender disparities."

What can businesses do to help address the disparities between Black and white tech workers? "No. 1, employers need to hold themselves accountable for equitable talent practices. Unfortunately, all of the events around George Floyd’s murder and [more recent] corporate commitments to DE&I reflect an awareness that employers were not doing everything they could do. There was admission in some cases of just flat-out bias.

"So, some of that — if you’re being honest — come through homophily; you want to work with people who look like you. Your recruiting pool — you’re recruiting from your alma mater or people you know. We have the evidence that that’s not inclusive. If you do that, you will have a homogeneous employee workforce.

"The other thing is the use of these hiring algorithms and ensuring there isn’t bias baked into those algorithms. Many times, those algorithms are based on how we think and act. Looking at making those more equitable is important.

"Really, it’s a leadership commitment to being inclusive and holding employers holding themselves accountable for their data, not just talking about it.

"There’s an organization called Kanarys and one called Eskalera, and both of them use real-time data to access the employer environment around DE&I and so employers can address issues around what Black workers are experiencing.

"I’d also like to see support for upskilling, ensuring your Black talent have the opportunity and support to upskill and mentors connecting them to sponsors — really, the things that are required for success in an organization. We have the data showing they typically don’t have mentors and are less likely to have organizational sponsors, and those things are critical for advancement."

Your report cites 14 organizations seen as innovators in minority hiring; what key practices do they have in common? "I was surprised by this. When you talk about tech and increasing tech talent, a lot of times you talk about coding skills and specific positions. What we found was what these organizations, while they had the hard skills — the coding boot camps and things like that — they also all focused on soft skills.

"These organizations started much earlier [in a person’s career with the organization]. So, there is support for early awareness and mentorship. There [were] child care services and [initiatives] around providing transportation.

"The thing that they all had in common is they were designed to address some of the systemic and structural challenges that create some of the barriers for Black learners and workers in tech. They’re like full-service organizations.

"Many of them even had alumni support. So, even after someone was hired, they still had access to the organization and the organization is still liaising with the employer for advancement prospects for those who’d already gone through programs. Several of the programs with employee partners are very intentional about expectations for the organization to be working on the DE&I and ensuring the environment is one that can accommodate the workers. We saw a lot of the real innovators being built for that purpose. So, they do much more than just specific training."

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