Business

Doing Better: More effort needed to diversify NC’s high-tech workforce

In theory, North Carolina should have one of the most vibrant, diverse technology workforces in the country.

We have 11 historically black colleges and universities – the highest density in the country. They include Raleigh’s Shaw University that was founded in 1855 and is the oldest HBCU in the South. North Carolina Central University is one of the 16 senior institutions in the University of North Carolina system with 38 graduate and professional degrees.

North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro is one of the nation’s largest historically black universities. Its engineering school, with more than 1,700 undergraduate and graduate students, graduates the highest number of black engineers in the U.S.

In reality, however, our high-tech workforce remains stubbornly white and male.

One significant challenge: the lack of minorities taking programming classes and ultimately majoring in computer science. At a time when technology is becoming increasingly omnipresent, computer science courses in high schools have actually decreased 17 percent since 2005. Of the 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 2,100 are certified to teach the Advanced Placement computer science course – with the majority of these being in well-resourced suburban schools in affluent areas.

This has a disproportionate negative effect on minority communities. In North Carolina, for example, only 28 African-American students took the AP computer science exam in 2013. Their pass rate was 21 percent, according to a detailed study of the AP computer science results compared with 44 percent nationally.

Increase participation

Not surprisingly, this early experience – or lack of it – directly translates into the number of students majoring in computer science. In a survey of its employees, for instance, Google reports that 98 percent of computer science majors were exposed to it in high school and earlier through courses and after-school programs and camps.

Jeff Forbes, a professor of computer science at Duke who recently completed a three-year stint with the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering, believes the lack of persistence among minorities in computer science can be partly attributed to lack of access, reinforcement, and positive engagement.

“African-Americans and Latino youth actually express a higher interest in pursuing careers in technology than their white counterparts,” Forbes says. “But a lack of role models, mentorship and readily available opportunities to develop this interest leads them down different paths.”

Forbes is now working with a group of colleagues to address these challenges by developing a pilot mentorship program. It focuses on trying to increase minority participation in computer science classes and, ultimately, the high-tech workforce.

Forbes is in good company. In recognition of the lack of diversity in their work force, technology companies nationally are making significant commitments to improving their diversity. Earlier this year, Intel announced a $300 million fund to attract more women and minorities to its workforce. Part of the money will be used to fund engineering scholarships particularly within historically black colleges and universities.

Closer to home, a group of business leaders in the Triangle have joined to form the Triangle Diversity Business Council with the vision of “transforming the Triangle into the most diverse and inclusive business environment in the country” (Christopher helped form the Council). Participating companies agree to track and publish their diversity data and interview a highly qualified woman and minority candidate for every open executive position and board seat.

Realize the potential

Meanwhile, new coding schools and targeted programs are popping up. Code2040 was established in 2013 to “create programs that increase the representation of Blacks and Latino/as in the innovation economy.” Their fellowship program helps place minority undergraduate and graduate students into high-tech companies for summer internships that often lead to full-time employment. Since its founding, the nonprofit has had over 1,000 applicants apply for the fellowship program and 200 companies express interest in hiring them.

Code2040 has also partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs to place outstanding minority tech entrepreneurs in a yearlong residency program in which they launch a company and connect communities of color to their local entrepreneurial ecosystem. The program is being piloted in three cities nationally, including Durham.

Triangle-based Code the Dream provides coding classes and project-based learning opportunities for immigrants and is looking for ways to scale its work. Community colleges such as Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte also provide highly accessible computer programming training.

It’s clear that North Carolina has the talent, resources, and demand to be a model of workforce diversity. But do we have the resolve and commitment to realize this potential?

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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