The tech sector has been shaken by the culmination of several factors that have – in part – been brewing for almost a decade. These factors are a growing skills gap, an increase in the instances and sophistication of cyber-attacks on organisations, and a conspicuous lack of diversity within tech companies.
One of these, though, is arguably the cause of the other two.
The lack of diversity within the tech sector is a huge problem. It’s also been leaving us without the fresh, new perspectives and talent we badly need to solve the most pressing tech issues of our day.
Although we’ve seen some efforts from tech employers to hire a more diverse range of talent, this has not been sustained. These initiatives have largely phased out or emerged to be nothing more than surface-level attempts to fix what is a deeply ingrained industry bias, sometimes coined “performance diversity”.
This bias, as bad as it is for workers, has an impact on far more than just the makeup of workplaces and the chances that anyone who isn’t a white man will rise through the ranks to tech leadership.
Holding back talent
This bias within hiring is disastrous, not only because it holds back potential talent, but also because it has a huge impact on the work being done.
There is an urgent need for those in tech to create more equitable, incentivised, and welcoming environments in which new workers can thrive and contribute in meaningful ways – and in ways that equate to earning a decent wage. If the tech sector is to survive and withstand the pressures we are facing as a result of this global crisis, tech employers must do more than pay lip-service to inclusivity.
That means giving those who have traditionally been blocked from accessing upskilling and educational opportunities, access to the resources and skills they need to thrive in roles within high-demand job categories. Offering apprenticeships, employer-funded certifications, and hiring from outside the usual degree-holding pool of candidates, are among the best ways organisations can do that.
Tech’s hiring habits may not have changed much in the last decade or so, but the threats to security certainly have at an alarming rate. If we continue to hire only from a pool of candidates who have learned what they know about tech from textbooks and lectures, we will fail as a sector, losing out to adversaries in cybercrime who do know how to adapt and be resourceful. These people don’t care what degree someone holds.
Apprenticeships and employer-funded certifications offer organisations the chance to bring people into the fold who can match theoretical knowledge with an even greater level of practical application and who can be scrappy in their approach to getting things done. Apprentices and people certified while on-the-job gain priceless skills like problem-solving, analytical ability, interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and so much more.
The “earn-while-you-learn” apprenticeship model is a proven strategy for workplace inclusivity, and for giving more people a realistic on-ramp to a job. If people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, can’t afford to travel or take time off from their job to attend an unpaid training program, what’s the point?
Apprenticeships and certifications also offer a built-in, long-term retention strategy for employers, in that people who know their employers have invested in their sustained success are likely to stick around much longer than those who feel disposable. Many apprenticeships include a mentor --a trusted colleague the apprentice can come to for support-- which is among the pathway’s best features, and a benefit that can serve people from underrepresented demographics well.
The “fish out of water” syndrome, in which a woman or person of colour comes in to work in an all-white, male workplace, can be a source of frustration, conflict, and even attrition, as they are often left to fend for themselves and can’t see themselves reflected in their organisation.
To solve both the skills gap and the confidence gap --the pervasive thinking that only certain types of people are valued, or that someone must be, for example, a maths or coding genius to get a job in tech-- we need a variety of entry-points and on-ramps into the tech workforce.
hat must include pathways that give people from diverse backgrounds the assuredness to understand that not only can they get a job, but that their perspectives and contributions are wanted and valued in tech.
The time has come for our sector to think differently about how we hire, who we hire, and about the skills we value in the workplace. Let’s give the people who have the most to gain from careers in tech the incentives they need to join us. Because in truth, we need them more than they need us.
This feature appeared in our February 2022 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.