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By Jared Brown
August 4, 2015
Caption : The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of African American and Latino/a applicants, it’s that the technology industry isn’t hiring them.     

Major technology companies have consistently cited a severe shortage of qualified Black and Latino/a job applicants to explain the dearth of workforce diversity.  But “if you look at the empirical evidence,” said Dr. Darrick Hamilton, Professor of Economics and Urban Policy at the New School, “that is just not the case.”

In fact, remedying the supposed shortage of African-American and Latino/a college graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, education, and math) has been a national imperative since 2009. The Obama administration called on colleges and universities to graduate an additional 1 million students with STEM majors in order to ensure a globally competitive workforce. Since then, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have graduated record numbers of students with degrees in STEM and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Diversity Task Force launched CBC Tech 2020 Initiative to address and remedy the underrepresentation of minorities in the technology industry. From August 2 to August 4, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) were set to meet with technology companies like Google, Apple, and Intel that, while at the forefront of innovation, fall behind in diversity.

And yet, the number of qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds may not be the problem. Research indicates, contrary to the strategies driving many of these initiatives, that the workforce is actually oversaturated with unemployed African American and Latino/a college graduates. African American college graduates, for example, are two times more likely than whites to be unemployed. Over 12 percent of African American college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 are unemployed.  And top universities turn out African American and Latino/a computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them. The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of African American and Latino/a applicants, it’s that the technology industry isn’t hiring them.

Workforce disparities are particularly pronounced in the technology industry. According to company diversity reports, African Americans and Latino/as are underrepresented at several major technology companies including Apple, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay, Intel, and HP. Only two to six percent of the staff and one to three percent of the executive leadership at each of the aforementioned companies is African American. These numbers are troubling because according to Dr. William Spriggs, Chief Economist at AFL-CIO, African American underemployment in the technology industry does not stem from an absence of qualified talent.

Dr. Spriggs writes that African American college students are more likely than white college students to choose computer science as a major and there are more baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans than to Asian Americans in computer science. These findings were substantiated by USA Today, which found that while only two percent of workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that released data on their staffs are African American or Latino/a, African American and Latino/s each made up about 9 percent of 2012 computer science graduates from all U.S. colleges and universities and 12 percent of 2012 computer science graduates from prestigious research universities.

So, why the underutilization of African American and Latino/a talent in the technology industry? Dr. Spriggs cites renewed business interest in recruiting foreign talent for American jobs as the primary cause of African American and Latino/a underemployment in the tech industry. He writes: “Business interests are pushing hard in Congress to import temporary workers to do computer-based jobs.” Meanwhile, he adds, “there are still 20,000-plus fewer blacks employed as computer programmers and systems analysts since their employment peaked in 2008.” Other scholars have cited hiring discrimination and myths regarding African American and Latino/a workforce preparedness as primary factors impeding African American and Latino/a participation in the technology industry.

Without undermining any of these explanations for the underutilization of African American and Latino/a talent in the technology industry, I hope the CBC Diversity Task Force discusses two additional matters with leaders in the tech industry: opportunities to increase formal, private participation in the development of HBCU STEM curriculum to meet workforce needs and strategies for increasing HBCU/Historically Spanish Institution (HSI)-focused hiring programs and initiatives that link tech clients to a network of highly qualified job seekers of color.

One company is already working through these issues and may serve as a best-practice model for other companies to follow. Google says it is preparing promising talent for leading technical roles. In working with five HBCUs to revamp their Intro to Computer Science curriculum, Google is helping students translate what they learn into careers at top tech companies. This partnership has also led to higher enrollment in the Intro to CS class and an unprecedented number of HBCU students joining Google as summer interns.

Google is also beginning to focusing on hiring programs and initiatives at HBCUs and HSIs. “Past recruitment efforts have relied heavily on a relatively small number of schools, and those school aren’t always the most diverse,” its website reads. To remedy this issue and in response to increased outside pressure, Google has doubled the number of schools where they recruit and in 2015, nearly 20 percent of the hires came from these new campuses.

Companies should not only expand the reach of their recruitment efforts, but they should specifically target HBCUs and HSIs. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2012, 8.5 percent of black undergraduates attended HBCUs. In contrast, HBCUs awarded 17.8 percent of the Science and Engineering bachelor’s degrees to African American students. To meet the nation’s accelerating demands for STEM talent, more effective and sustainable relationships with minority serving intuitions and students are needed.

Guest blogger Jared Brown is a spokesperson with the Generation Progress Voices Network. 

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