IT Departments Need Diversity More Than Ever!
Here’s the bad news for this Black History Month: Although African- Americans were ten times as likely to own computers in 2015 than they were in 1994, when the U.S. Department of Commerce started tracking the digital divide, the rate at which blacks are migrating to the Internet lags further than ever behind the rate for whites.
That means many African-Americans are not getting hands-on experience with technology. And experts say that without that experience, they will continue to be shut out of the lucrative world of IT employment. “Minorities and women make up 10 percent of the [IT] work force, so there’s some work left to do,” said Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy at the National Urban League, in New York.
So what’s the good news?
You can sum it up in three words: IT skills shortage. “The demand for workers is so strong, it just boils down to a question of skills and outreach,” Fulton said.
That ravenous demand for IT talent has given birth to an inspiring range of programs intended to draw more minorities into the profession. For instance, companies such as Bell Atlantic Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Netier Technologies Inc. are donating hardware, software and training to help residents of a once crime-infested inner-city project get jobs. In addition, the federal government is readying an initiative called “ClickStart” that will provide PCs and Internet access to low- income families and is also expanding the number of tax-advantaged “empowerment zones,” which help technology startups put down roots in the inner city. Such efforts are joining scores of nonprofit programs, such as the annual High School Computer Competition put together by the Black Data Processing Associates, whose work long predates the skills shortage.
Put your money where the people are
Can these initiatives close the digital divide? And will they appease IT’s need for skills by delivering minority workers who are hungry for jobs? Not in and of themselves. Experts say that before those goals are achieved, corporations must get their heads out of the silicon and start looking where the workers are.
“It’s one thing to be trained, but if [companies] don’t know where to find the pools of ready and willing workers, you may miss qualified people by default,” Fulton said. “There needs to be better outreach to colleges and universities and to programs in urban areas.”
One of those pools of willing workers can be found in an urban area called Edgewood Terrace, in Washington.
Edgewood, an 884-unit apartment complex, was once about as inviting and safe as West Beirut. In fact, because of its crime level and crack houses, Washington police and TV stations referred to the beleaguered neighborhood as “Little Beirut.”
In 1991, though, a nonprofit organization, the Community Preservation and Development Corp., took charge of turning Edgewood around. At the heart of that turnaround are EdgeNet and The [email protected] Terrace. EdgeNet is a network of thin clients hooked up to centrally maintained applications that, over the next two years, will give residents access to the tools of computer literacy. The [email protected] Terrace is a computer learning center comprising four networked labs with more than 60 workstations. The center offers classes in computer skills and applications and, in the future, will offer network management and beginning Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer courses.
Where will it all lead? To a community that is empowered by e-mail, an intranet and the Internet to make decisions on its own, whether about the community or about its own technology. It will also lead to good jobs-the unemployment rate in the project has shrunk from 47 percent to 33 percent since the program started
“The technology is what enables people to get into living-wage jobs,” said Leslie Steen, president of the CPDC, in Washington. “Then it gives them the ability to have an IT career path as well.”
And, many corporations are willing-even eager-to hire the people that the Edgewood programs have to offer.
“We love to hire [Edgewood residents] and hire as many as we can,” said Marianne Becton, manager of external affairs at the Washington offices of Bell Atlantic, one of the CPDC’s partners and a major benefactor in donating technology and job training to Edgewood. “It makes more sense to groom the people who are here, for sustained regional economic growth.”
But, while Bell Atlantic has hired basic computer training graduates from Edgewood for entry-level jobs such as customer service and residential sales and services, the goal of EdgeNet is also to prepare residents for more technically challenging IT positions. To that end, Microsoft has donated all the software that runs on the central Data General servers in the network, anticipating that as Edgewood residents are exposed to thin clients every day in their homes and to sophisticated training courses such as Web development, they’ll be hooked.
“Just because there’s a skills shortage doesn’t mean they’ll hire you just if you can spell the word ‘computer,'” said Chris Roberts, a business development manager for Microsoft who’s based in Washington and who administers Microsoft’s partnership with the CPDC. That’s the point of “the Web development course at Edgewood. If you get involved, you get engrossed, and you get more proficient.”
Some businesses, such as Transparent Technology Corp., are setting up shop in urban areas, where they know they’ll find qualified help.
“We located our business in the city because of our experience with Edgewood and knowing there are a lot of educated people in the city who are looking for work,” said John Zoltner, former community technology manager for Edgewood, who, with two other Edgewood technologists, went on to found Transparent Technology, a four-person services outsourcing startup.
“We feel that, in order to really turn around neighborhoods like Edgewood, we need not only high-tech training programs but for-profit companies based in center cities who are willing to hire the products of those training programs,” said Zoltner, in Washington. “We hope to be one of those companies.”
Fleeing the ‘burbs
The phenomenon of high-tech startups turning their backs on racially homogeneous suburbs in favor of the inner city isn’t limited to the East Coast. It’s even happening in the Bay Area, where most new companies have historically chosen to settle in Silicon Valley.
“Are firms escaping from Silicon Valley to the inner city? Boy, is that the understatement of the universe,” said Marie Jones, director of economic development at The San Francisco Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works with companies interested in relocating to the city. “The answer would be a profound and unambiguous yes.”
Tax incentives, pools of willing workers and affordable real estate are the lures for companies to abandon suburban office parks, experts say.
“The warehouses and abandoned buildings in inner cities are prime real estate waiting to be developed,” said Microsoft’s Roberts. “[Startups are saying,] ‘If I can find real estate that cheap, with access to transportation and a work force that lives next door, we’d move there in a heartbeat.'”
But while companies moving to the cities and new computer training programs are all good news for urban African-Americans who are new to technology, black IT pros still need networking resources to succeed. That’s where the BDPA comes in.
To that end, the group holds a yearly conference that also features a job fair and the BDPA’s crowning glory, its High School Computer Competition, where mostly-but not exclusively-African-American youth battle it out in technological races to do tasks such as post Web pages.
These efforts are coaxing teenagers into becoming technologists, said Chester Grice, president of the Dayton, Ohio, BDPA chapter and High School Computer Competition coordinator. “Out of the students who attend the national conference, about two out of a team of five go straight into IT, no questions asked,” Grice said.
Veronica Flores is one of those who took the “straight to IT” path. The 18-year-old computer IS student at Baruch College, in New York, said being chosen for the New York team was the best thing that ever happened to her. “I was so happy when I got picked,” Flores said. “That day, I was waiting by the phone. I was pacing. My dad told me I was making him dizzy.”
So what can IT organizations do to tap into that inspiring enthusiasm? A first step is to hit the career fair circuit.
However, experts say, once you’ve successfully recruited minority workers, the job’s not over; to keep them, you’ve got to demonstrate that they will have the same career opportunities as nonminority IT hires.
“If people have these technical skills, [they’re in high demand in the job market, and] you can get them to exit the work force pretty quickly if the environment doesn’t show signs of welcome,” said Joe Cleveland, president of Enterprise Information Systems at Lockheed Martin Corp., in Orlando. “If you can’t demonstrate to them that it’s a level playing field, then they’ll be gone.”