The U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down race-based affirmative action in higher education admissions sparked deep emotions across the political spectrum. Some applauded what they considered fairness. Others worried about the ruling’s impact on the college-to-career pipeline, which many companies and startups rely on to diversify their ranks. Specifically, this latter group is concerned about a chilling effect on corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.
The decision’s full impact will take months and years to assess. As we begin to figure things out, I’d like to offer a couple of practical observations for students of technology, learning and development (L&D) professionals, and employers.
Affirmative Action and Tech
The recent Supreme Court decision striking down race-based affirmative action may have profound effects on every industry, tech included. Here are some ways tech companies can continue to foster diversity in the wake of the change:
- Consider hiring workers without degrees.
- Build on the existing strengths of the industry.
- Limited, temporary, and voluntary affirmative action hiring programs.
- Diversity can factor into hiring as long as race is not the deciding factor.
No Degree Is No Problem
Even before the high court’s ruling, many organizations were already moving away from requiring a college education for every IT role, as skills- and certification-based training continue to gain momentum.
For example, a Computerworld survey found 59 percent of tech firms were considering prioritizing skills and certifications over degrees. Nearly one-third believed doing so would help diversify hiring. Other real-world data underscores this shift. At IBM, only 29 percent of posted IT jobs required a degree. Accenture has begun to drop college requirements for many of its tech roles. And it’s not just the private sector: The state government of Maryland announced last year that it would no longer require four-year degrees for certain jobs.
Today, many entry-level and middle-skill IT jobs are open to non-degreed workers. These jobs include junior data analyst, help desk analyst, computer programmer, web developer, IT manager, and cybersecurity specialist. Tech firms are especially open:
Skills-based hiring is not a fad. A major study by the BurningGlass Institute concluded that rethinking the necessity of college degrees is key to growth during talent shortages. Such a recalibration makes sense: Newcomers can use their skills to get in the door or advance within a company. If they want or need a degree later, the employer may well pick up the tab, sparing the student exorbitant tuition costs or burdensome loans.
Employers benefit from this shift too. Proponents say the approach reduces unconscious bias by focusing on a worker’s capabilities rather than background or personal factors. And it helps widen the candidate pool and increases diversity by inviting a greater number of candidates who might not have applied to a more traditional posting.
Research by McKinsey and the Rework America Alliance highlights how a skills-based approach “can help U.S. employers expand talent pools and retain great workers — even through economic uncertainty.” It’s a good bet this trend will continue and maybe even accelerate.
Build Diversity on Existing Strengths
Surprise! Computer- and math-based careers are already the most racially varied occupational group, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fully 35 percent of workers in these careers are Black, Asian or Hispanic/Latino. That compares with just 16 percent in legal, 18 percent in management, 26 percent in healthcare and community/social services, and 27 percent in life and social sciences.
Despite this progress, traditionally marginalized people are still under-represented in tech jobs relative to their proportion of the larger U.S. population. For instance, Black people make up 8 percent of the tech workforce versus 12 percent of the population as a whole and Hispanic/Latine workers are 9 percent of the tech versus 17 percent of the population according to the industry group CompTIA. So, there’s still room for improvement in the industry.
Politics aside, proponents say that in an era of widespread worker shortages, skill gaps and constant pressure to do more with less, broadening recruitment and advancement makes good business sense. Research by Korn Ferry, for instance, shows that well-managed, inclusive teams make better decisions 87 percent of the time. Likewise, McKinsey says ethnic and culturally diverse firms are 36 percent more profitable than less diverse competitors. Cultivating high-performing teams like these will be crucial amidst ever-growing pressure for greater innovation and growth.
In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling, some organizations are side-stepping the diversity issue, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, notes the Conference Board. Others are redoubling diversity efforts. These firms face a complex question: What is the best way to attract, keep and promote from the largest pool of candidates without explicitly including race as a deciding factor?
There are no easy answers. Many organizations with diverse staffs have a solid foundation to continue building upon. Mentorship within these companies, along with industry groups like BlacksInCyberSecurity, is a good place to start. Such personalized coaching offers a proven way to support the growth of minority tech professionals as they enter the workforce.
The Future of Diversity in Tech
Finally, it’s important to remember that the Supreme Court ruling did not ban all race-conscious hiring practices. Some are still permitted under certain strict circumstances. More specifically, they’re allowed as part of limited, temporary and structured voluntary affirmative action programs that correct imbalances caused by company- or industry-wide hiring discrimination. To be legal, such programs must not cause “undue harm” to members of non-targeted groups, such as laying off white workers to hire workers of color, for instance.
And organizations can still focus recruiting efforts on diverse communities as long race is not a key criterion for acceptance, hiring or promotion. Future court cases should continue to define the fuzzy differences between “goals” and “quotas” for inclusive hiring. So stay tuned.
Education has always been a key to upward mobility. As institutions, employers, students and professionals navigate the new legal landscape, considering new, skills-based pathways and non-traditional pathways to learning, workforce entry and advancement is smart on multiple levels.