The Tech Glass Ceiling: It’s Time to Smash it for Everyone
Much has been written about the fact that women are often left out of opportunities in the technology sector, and that’s certainly true. But they are not the only ones. The same could be said of Americans who have no college degree, who are neurodiverse, who are over age 50, or who belong to other groups squeezed out of the tech workforce.
While there are more than 1 million unfilled technology jobs in the U.S. today, the truth is that there are many millions of Americans who can fill these vacancies — if they can get training.
Unfortunately, the tech education and training opportunities for “non-techies” often fall short. Too many of these programs take many months to complete, are expensive, hard to navigate, and not relatable to people outside of the tech world. The result is that the technology companies so desperate to hire are unable to access the talent who could solve their problem.
A Workforce Full of Solutions
Consider all of the talented groups in America that could, with a dose of effective workforce development, provide a ready supply of capable and enthusiastic employees:
- Non-College Applicants. Many HR professionals continue to require four-year college experience even though 1 in 3 Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree and 67 percent of U.S. developers are self-taught. With tuition ever-increasing and no guarantee of work upon graduation, more young people will be skipping college because they do not see the return on investment. Recruiters will have to get wise.
- Senior Citizens. In 2035, our country will have more Americans over 65 than those under 18. U.S. seniors are living and working longer, often in second careers. This population often has decades of experience and subject matter knowledge but requires retraining programs to keep pace with technology. The AARP has also called for urgent measures to stop the age discrimination people over 50 often suffer in the workplace.
- The Neurodiverse. There are roughly 65 Million neurodiverse adults in the U.S. and the vast majority are unemployed. Too often, technology employers miss the competitive advantage that neurodiverse individuals offer in fields like cybersecurity. “In cybersecurity, we need out-of-the-box thinking, pattern recognition, idea generation, problem-solving, and innovation,” Craig Froelich, chief information security officer at Bank of America, wrote in Business Insider. “These hard-to-find skills can exist within those who are neurodiverse. These critical skills and unique ways of thinking empower innovation in the cyber world.”
- Military Veterans. Many who serve in uniform do extremely technical work. But those jobs do not always translate directly to positions in the civilian workforce. Training can add relevant skills, smooth the transition and capitalize on the work ethic and discipline that are the hallmarks of U.S. military experience.
- Immigrants. Millions of people come to the U.S. to change their lives but wind up stuck in jobs that don’t pay well, that they don’t like and that have few avenues for advancement. While there are many opportunities in technology, the options to receive training are often only in English, expensive, inflexible, time-consuming, and inadequate for this group.
- Women on Work Hiatus. In 2020, 80 percent of the workers leaving or losing their jobs in the pandemic were women. “Unemployment data alone doesn’t provide a full picture of the challenges women face in the workplace,” according to a McKinsey & Company study released in February. “Since the onset of the pandemic, 400,000 more women than men have left the workforce. And some segments of the workforce have suffered even more — for example, while employment for men with less than a high school education has recovered to pre-crisis levels, employment rates for women with the same level of education remain 1 to 8 percentage points below pre-pandemic benchmarks.” It could take years for women to get those jobs back, the report says, and they will need upskilling to do so.
- The Incarcerated. Millions of people are released from U.S. prisons each year, including as many as 2 million women and girls. Though work can help restore productive lives and reduce recidivism, there are few post-release programs that address current needs and skills in the technology sector.
- High School Dropouts. Today’s classrooms are full of smart and talented children who, for various reasons, will never finish school. Students in this category are often poor, whether they live in urban or rural areas. While states are required to offer a high school education until age 21, 54 percent of students who drop out do so in 10th or 11th grade. We have seen many efforts to fix this but few promising results. In fact, the “event” dropout rate was 4.7 percent in 2017, up from 3.5 percent in 2007.
Steps We Can Take
Obviously, there’s a lot of untapped talent waiting for companies willing to look in the right places. Diversifying technology companies is something we can do — today — if we are willing to change the way we think about workforce development. Here are some ideas:
- Stop waiting on schools to improve. For decades we have been waiting for schools to get better. Education reformers, teachers unions, and government, often with opposite perspectives but similar goals, have been unable to make the massive systemic changes that schools need to meet the needs of students and employers. We cannot wait on schools to get better anymore. Our kids can’t wait. Our employees can’t wait. U.S. companies can’t wait.
- Embrace apprenticeships as a major part of the solution. Apprenticeship programs have worked for hundreds of years in skilled trades, and they can do so in technology, too. A “learn while you earn” experience is an excellent way to teach skills the workplace needs today and give underserved populations more opportunity. Women, seniors, veterans, the neurodiverse, minorities, and almost any other group can learn a tech role through a well-implemented apprenticeship.
- Give school credit for apprenticeship. School districts (and arguably colleges, too) should allow students to obtain high school credits for hours worked in an apprenticeship program. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the top-ranked STEM school in America, does so. Why not all schools?
- Nurture women who leave the workforce. Companies can save money on onboarding and recruiting fees if they stay in touch with women who take breaks to have children, go back to school, or do other things. Create “alumni” groups and offer continuous training. Not only will you develop brand ambassadors, but you will eventually have a pipeline of ready talent when these women — or men- return to work.
- Train people who are incarcerated. Remote apprenticeship programs could be life-changing for people in jails, prisons, and correctional programs — especially women — while reducing recidivism and unemployment. Programs affiliated with a specific employer who is willing to hire people when they complete their training would be even more valuable.
- Rethink outdated HR processes and philosophies. Even in progressive technology companies, HR professionals tend to use a “one size fits all” approach. While many understand the importance of inclusion, few are encouraged to take chances and create networks that tap into underserved populations. Indeed, many are not technical enough themselves to identify skill sets in non-traditional candidates.
To fill today’s tech jobs, we need to think differently. We need to create new opportunities for training and new channels for hiring, then use them to take advantage of a larger, more inclusive pool of talent. That is true diversity. That is diversity that works for everyone.
Ximena is the founder of Tech Apprenticeships, an effort to increase apprenticeships in technology roles. www.ximenahartsock.com