Toward a more diverse high-tech workforce
March 11, 1999
by Jacob Ward
(IDG) -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson last Monday announced plans to invest $100,000 in Silicon Valley companies. At the same time, he chided Valley businesses for their lack of racial diversity, arguing that too few blacks and Latinos are employed in the area's high-tech industry.
Jackson said these companies are not meeting the affirmative-action requirements that their federal contracts demand. To encourage firms to hire a more diverse work-force, he announced that his Wall Street Project would be investing in the 50 largest publicly traded Silicon Valley companies, which include Sun Microsystems, Cisco and Intel. With that stake, he wants to participate in a kind of "shareholder activism" to ensure more racially balanced staffing.
"An argument can be made that this current economic boom is a result of public and federal investment," says Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Civil Rights Forum in Washington, D.C. "It ought to be a matter of fairness that these companies reach out and do what they can do to ensure that American workers are trained and employed in 21st century jobs."
In the nascent Internet industry, in which hiring is often done on the basis of qualifications such as "creative thinking" and "problem-solving aptitude," recruiters are looking for intangible skills that could belong to almost anyone. So what is the tech sector doing to expand its recruitment efforts into more sectors of U.S. society?
Hardly anyone wants to say. Of almost a dozen companies contacted, such as Yahoo, Ascend and Netscape, none would directly comment on their affirmative-action policies, although a few alluded to diversity training and compliance with equal-employment-opportunity programs.
The tech sector is generally credited with a mindset more embracing of diversity than the rest of corporate America. But increasingly, the industry appears to be falling prey to another of Jackson's criticisms: That companies are more willing to hire a worker trained abroad, who's willing to stay on the job in exchange for a green card, than they are to recruit domestically.
According to a report from the Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy, 95,000 new systems analysts, computer programmers and software engineers will be needed each year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that only 175 of 1,434 Silicon Valley high-tech companies working on federal contracts reported statistical information about the racial makeup of their workforces, as required by law. In those 175 companies, 35 percent of the 172,000 employees are minorities -- a low percentage for California's heterogeneous population.
To find the right talent in the fast-growing Internet Economy, companies need to get creative, argues B. Keith Fulton, directory of technology programs and policy for the National Urban League. "There are tremendous gaps in the technology workforce -- one in 10 jobs go unfilled," he says. "These companies don't have time to be racist."
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