Increasing diversity in tech hiring requires a common-ground approach

Michelle Ferguson and Kasheef Wyzard
·4 min read
Digital generated image of multi-ethnic arms raised in the air on dark gray background.

The pandemic is surging in America once more. If this past year is any indication, it will hurt all of us — but communities of color will continue to suffer disproportionately.

Black and brown folks will make up more of the sick and the dying, and Black and brown businesses and employees will make up more of the people struggling financially.

Here is the good news: Interest in finding common ground and concrete solutions is also surging. That means there are some paths out of the mess we are in.

America’s biggest, best-funded, most-profitable companies are struggling to hire and retain diverse talent.

Let’s take stock: The longer the pandemic lasts, the more it could accelerate ongoing trends. Automation and advanced computing was changing how we work and undermining livelihoods before COVID-19, but by 2030, technology and automation will negatively affect hundreds of thousands of jobs that exist today.

The situation is worse for communities of color. Because people of color are overrepresented in fields that are likely to be automated, a McKinsey report estimated that 23.1% of African Americans and 25.1% of Hispanic Americans will see their jobs disappear or transform in the next decade. Even before COVID-19, the situation was bleak.

Perhaps this shift will create new, high-tech jobs, or those same people can retrain, retool and find employment in the economy of the future?

In practice, it is not nearly so easy. In 2019, the average cost for online coding bootcamps was $14,623 per person. Even with loans, installment plans or income-sharing agreements, that is far beyond the reach of many of the people whose current jobs are going away.

The pandemic is making this worse. Nearly 80% of low-income households do not have enough savings to last three months, and a third of Americans will have trouble paying their bills this month.

Waiting for the good news? America’s biggest, best-funded, most-profitable companies are struggling to hire and retain diverse talent. The good news is that they know it. They know they cannot compete without the genius in underrepresented communities, and they know they are not doing well enough right now.

Many companies will spend an average of $20,000 just on recruiting fees for a single IT hire, but hiring an IT candidate from a diverse community can cost three times as much, and once hired, there is a massive retention problem. Since 2016, the retention rate of Black and Latinx employees in Big Tech has fallen from 7% to 5%. There is a revolving door of diverse talent entering and leaving organizations.

In other words, you have a whole bunch of talented, creative people crying out for high-tech jobs — and a whole bunch of powerhouse, innovative companies desperate to hire and hold onto talent and creativity.

These overlapping needs mean we can find common ground. One model for this was the Dream Corps TECH Town Hall this month, where activists and educators from underrepresented communities shared panels with industry leaders. Instead of lobbing bombs at each other, both groups came to talk about the problems they face and how they can work together.

For instance, industry and educational leaders can devote resources to scholarships and training programs that come with job guarantees. Activists and CEOs can both push for universal broadband access, especially in the midst of a pandemic that is damaging learning opportunities for children, so that the next generation of coders has a shot at success.

Untapped talent in underrepresented communities can help companies avoid algorithmic bias and compete in a diverse, global world, and companies can help people thrive as the economy changes.

This common-ground approach is built on the recognition that both sides need each other in order to succeed. It can be a model for other thorny problems and produce necessary solutions. The pandemic is surging once more — but so is the demand for common ground. We can choose how we respond.