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Coming to Terms With the Minority High Tech Employment Gap

Though the number of Blacks, Hispanics, and women working in the high tech sector has risen over the last decade, the high tech workforce remains worryingly homogenous.
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The aftershocks of the massive economic earthquake that was the Great Recession continue to reverberate, sometimes violently, across the United States. The unemployment rate, especially within communities of color, remains too high. Job creation is stagnant. We're currently facing yet another potential economic calamity -- national default if we fail to raise the debt ceiling. Not surprisingly, repairing this damage has proven to be a complex task. We've tried to "unleash innovation," we've attempted to "win the future," and last year's "recovery summer" was anything but.

Though vitally important, these contributing factors to a collective economic malaise mask more endemic problems that have plagued economic development for far too long. Foremost among these is an embarrassing lack of minority participation in our nation's growing high tech workforce. A 2010 analysis by the San Jose Mercury News found that the number of African Americans, Hispanics, and women working in Silicon Valley decreased between 2000 and 2008. This revelation was shocking and called for further investigation into the root causes of why one of the country's most successful sectors was also one of its least diverse.

A More Complete Picture of Minority High Tech Employment

Minorities and High Tech Employment, a report released by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council during its recent Access to Capital Conference, digs deeper into these issues and includes several recommendations for increasing minority high tech employment in the near term and longer term.

The research and analysis included in this report provides a more complete and comprehensive picture of high tech employment in the United States. In general, this sector has held up well during the recent economic downturn. At a time when most companies are shedding jobs and closing offices, high tech businesses of all sizes are prospering. One need only look at the recent IPOs and valuations of companies like LinkedIn, Zynga, and Groupon to recognize that this sector is flourishing.

And yet, the composition of the high tech workforce is not representative of the overall population or of the consumers that these companies serve. Nationally, African Americans represent about seven percent of all computer and mathematics workers, while Hispanics comprise about five percent. These proportions are even lower in Silicon Valley, where the San Jose Mercury News found that less than two percent of Blacks and five percent of Hispanics were employed in computer or mathematics positions in this region in 2008. Women are in a similarly daunting situation in Silicon Valley and high tech generally.

Though the number of Blacks, Hispanics, and women working in this sector has risen over the last decade, the high tech workforce remains worryingly homogenous, especially when one considers that Blacks and Hispanics make up almost 30 percent of the total U.S. population, while more than half of the population is female.

Equally as troubling, African American and Hispanic high tech employees are often underpaid for their work relative to white counterparts. By one estimate cited in the report, "the full-time salary for African Americans and Hispanics...with science and engineering bachelor's degrees was 25.8 percent lower than white and Asian American counterparts." On average, women are paid less than men in this field as well.

Why Workforce Diversity Matters

In addition to unearthing more data about the national high tech workforce, the report also provides a compelling analysis of why greater workforce diversity matters. In a nutshell, it concludes that "a diverse workforce that is inclusive of women, Hispanics, and African Americans has direct and positive impacts on creativity and innovation. Moreover, companies that recruit workforces that reflect the diversity of the consumers who purchase their products and services have a competitive advantage over those that do not. In addition, "since many firms in the high tech sector are 'startups'...lowering the barriers to launching these companies by African Americans, Hispanics, and women could also improve their representation across the sector."

More generally, companies operating in such an important sector have a social responsibility to "develop a representative workforce and ensure that the goods and services produced in the technological age are sufficiently targeted at a broad swath of minority groups." There are compelling economic and moral reasons for diversifying, but far too many companies have yet to embrace these notions.

Steps to Close the Employment Gap

The report concludes by offering a number of recommendations for closing the minority high tech employment gap in the short term and positioning minorities and women for more robust success in this sector over the longer term.

In the near term, there are several ways to close this embarrassing gap. Foremost among the report's recommendations is a call for more transparent reporting of minority employment data. The San Jose Mercury News requested employment data from an array of prominent firms based in Silicon Valley, but only a handful willingly complied. Those firms that didn't complained that their workforce data is a trade secret. However, numerous other firms throughout the wider broadband ecosystem, including most large broadband service providers, post this data on their Web sites. Ultimately, high tech firms need to be more forthcoming when it comes to the composition of their workforce. Making this data readily available will inform policymakers on whatever policies might be needed to encourage more minority hiring.

Other recommendations include the creation of additional incentives to encourage more entrepreneurship among African Americans, Hispanics, and women. President Obama, private companies, and nonprofits have all pledged to work together to lower those barriers (e.g., access to capital) that have long impeded more small business creation by these groups.

Over the longer term, the report recommends a sharper focus on developing a deeper talent pool of minority high tech workers. The report observes that, "Without more women and underrepresented minorities in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] pipeline, there is little chance there will be a qualified pool of candidates prepared for the high tech jobs of the future." This sector is growing exponentially and will require an enormous amount of new talent in the coming years. As such, work must start now to ensure that the next generation of minority workers possesses the proper set of skills to participate in the high tech sector.

Work to be Done

Minorities and High Tech Employment represents a first-in-kind attempt to rationalize the dearth of African American, Hispanic, and female representation in our nation's high tech sector. The hope is that this report will become a jumping off point for further discussion, analysis, and collaboration. Indeed, only a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach to workforce diversity issues will yield policies and approaches capable of rectifying such a shocking imbalance.