One of Donald Trump’s loudest–and likely most impossible to fulfill–promises is to bring back coal jobs. He has made this appeal to people whose factory skills aren’t in demand anymore and likely don’t have the secondary education necessary to enter into other industries.
Whether or not more coal jobs are created, this need has started a conversation about laborers with different educational backgrounds. Silicon Valley should be a leader in this conversation. For years, the tech pipeline has been fed mostly from the same elite universities. This has created a feedback loop of talent and a largely homogenous workplace. As a result, tech continues to stumble when it comes to diversity.
The technology industry is now trying to figure out a way to attack its cultural and demographic homogeneity issues. One simple initiative is to begin to recruit talent from people outside of its preferred networks. One way is to extend their recruiting efforts to people who don’t have four-year degrees.
IBM’s head of talent organization, Sam Ladah, calls this sort of initiative a focus on “new-collar jobs.” The idea, he says, is to look toward different applicant pools to find new talent. “We consider them based on their skills,” he says, and don’t take into account their educational background. This includes applicants who didn’t get a four-year degree but have proven their technical knowledge in other ways. Some have technical certifications, and others have enrolled in other skills programs. “We’ve been very successful in hiring from [coding] bootcamps,” says Ladah.
For IT roles, educational pedigree often doesn’t make a huge difference. For instance, many gaming aficionados have built their own systems. With this technical grounding, they would likely have the aptitude to be a server technician or a network technician. These roles require specific technical knowledge, not necessarily an academic curriculum vitae. “We’re looking for people who have a real passion for technology,” says Ladah. He goes on to say that currently about 10% to 15% of IBM’s new hires don’t have traditional four-year degrees.
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Before becoming a front-end engineer at IBM Design, Randy Tolentino worked as both a hip-hop artist and after-school program educator. He had dropped out of college as a sophomore and got a two-year IT degree as well as attended a coding bootcamp in Austin called MakerSquare (which is now HackReactor). This helped him land his job at IBM, where he’s been since 2015. Most of the people on his team now, he says, have more linear career trajectories than he does. “I’m very humble that they took a risk on bringing me in,” he says. “A lot of startups and companies won’t even give me a chance.”
Intel has also been looking to find talent from other educational avenues. One program gave people either enrolled in or recently graduated from community colleges internships with the company. Similarly, the company has been trying to get a foothold in high schools by funding initiatives to boost computer science curricula for both the Oakland Unified School District and an Arizona-based high-school oriented program called Next Generation of Native American Coders.
“Through focused initiatives in education, investment, and internship programs for high school and community college students, our aim is to attract a diversified talent pool to technology careers like engineering and computer science,” says Danielle Brown, VP of human resources and chief diversity and inclusion officer, in a statement. The program is still very small–only 10 students got community college internship spots.
The most prominent way that tech companies now try to seek out these new pipelines is through other organizations. Intel, for example, invests in the program CODE 2040, which aims to build pathways for underrepresented minority youth to enter the technology space. Likewise, GitHub has partnered with coding-focused enrichment programs like Operation Code, Hackbright, and Code Tenderloin.
This, however, is just scratching the surface. In 2015, President Obama introduced a plan called TechHire with the intent of creating ways for more people to gain the skills to enter the technology space. At the time of its announcement, Obama said there were over 500,000 unfilled technology positions (a statistic that was criticized at the time). But a more recent statistic from the Department of Labor says that as many as 1 million programming jobs will be unfilled by 2020.
In short, organizations shouldn’t seek out new talent pools just because it’s the “right” thing to do; they should do it because it’s the best thing for their business.
Gary Burtless, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institute, explained this last year. He believed that the best way to create more labor opportunity was to develop skills-based programs that let people fill these technology sector vacancies. “There are tons of occupations out there for which you do not need a college degree,” he said. And what could make things better would be certificate programs that have direct connections to employers.
With programs like IBM’s new-collar initiative and the partnerships at Github and Intel, we’re beginning to see the ways companies can begin to address this issue. And as the industry continues to be pilloried for poor diversity showings and a noninclusive culture, more of these initiatives would be a good thing.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misspelled Danielle Brown’s name. We apologize for the error.