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Level the Playing Field: Providing Equitable Access to a Career in Technology

Over the past few decades, joining the technology workforce has become a highly desired and sustainable career path in the United States, but the opportunity is not equitably available to all. The average total price of a 4-year degree in the 2019-2020 school year is $122,000. Traditional college and university environments are not a viable path for all, as American students have long been burdened by what is now an average of $30,000 in debt from student loans.

The financial burden of education and resources is just one example of the many systemic barriers preventing equitable access to a career in technology. The industry has a significantly disproportionate lack of racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity compared to the population as a whole. The percentage of women and racial minorities in technology (compared to the distribution in the overall population) has actually been declining since the mid-80s.

This “digital divide” in the technology industry points to a clear need to level the playing field, and expand access to resources, education, and mentorship that increases the viability of a technology career for those who are currently underrepresented in the field.

Growing Opportunities

The opportunities for quicker, less-expensive paths to a career in technology did not start with the pandemic, but they will certainly be expedited because of it. Coding boot camps have existed for years. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and Udacity have spent the past decade figuring out how to provide high-quality, online learning that keeps people engaged. Companies like General Assembly, which offers in-person and online classes in everything from UX design to data science and analytics to product management, have been around since 2011. There are countless others and most of them offer financing for tuition. Many allow you to defer payment until you find a job, plus offer career services to help folks find a job. There is still a significant cost for these programs of around $10-15K in tuition, but they are undoubtedly much less money and time than a 4-year degree.

Then there are the really big names, like Google. Since 2017, their Grow with Google program has offered online training for a career as an IT Support Professional. They recently announced that they will be rolling out new certifications for Data Analyst, Project Manager, and UX Designer. Not only are these certifications very affordable, but Google provides need-based scholarships. They also have used their considerable influence to team up with large corporations who are looking for the talent coming out of their program. A company like Google could not only be a provider of these services, but they could speed up the acceptance of hiring from these programs by countless other companies.

Cynics may say that Google is using this as a pipeline to a less expensive talent pool or that this isn’t a replacement for a 4-year degree. Some of the common objections to these programs are that they might not cover computer science concepts like data structures and algorithms, which could limit alumni when working in the field — which can be addressed with paired programming and mentorship when available.

Regardless of the imperfections, I commend Google and all of the other reputable companies who are leveling the playing field. The need existed before the pandemic, but it has certainly been amplified in recent months.

The Accelerating Effect of the Pandemic

Many 4-year universities with very high price tags are starting their second semester of online classes, making it even harder to justify the cost. Student loan debt currently sits at over $1.5 trillion. The world is filled with smart, talented people who either can’t afford to get a 4-year degree or don’t see the value in it. I’m not suggesting that an online-certificate is an apples-to-apples comparison with attending a 4-year university and there are plenty of valid reasons to value what our colleges and universities offer. However, it’s important to recognize that the traditional path is not the only path, and it certainly isn’t always the best path for every individual.

Unemployment is soaring and many jobs will be fundamentally different due to increased digitization. It’s time to train for the jobs of the future. Particularly as our country looks for ways to promote equal access to career opportunities and narrow the ever-increasing wealth disparity, non-traditional education programs are a beacon of hope.

These opportunities are especially important in technology. Despite lots of evidence that diverse teams of people create better products and find better solutions to problems, the technology industry is still struggling to diversify. One of the bottlenecks is higher education. Data varies slightly, but a recent study showed that only 18% of Computer Science undergraduates were female and 14% were Black or Hispanic. All the more reason for tech companies to start looking for talent beyond traditional institutions (source: NCES, 2016)

What WillowTree is Doing

To expand our talent pool at WillowTree to include those from non-traditional tech backgrounds, we start with our job requirements. We do not require a degree for the majority of our positions. Many of our software engineers are self-taught, have a degree unrelated to their current role, graduated from a boot camp type program. One of our employee resource groups (ERGs) is for team members from non-traditional tech backgrounds. It is cleverly named Trees Without Degrees and it is comprised of people who either do not have a college degree or have a degree in a field completely different from their current career. This ERG was instrumental in the launch of our Apprentice program this year. We’re piloting the program with two apprentices, but we plan to expand in the future based on lessons learned along the way. The apprenticeship program is designed to prepare someone — who would typically not be afforded the opportunity — for a career in tech by providing training, mentorship, and hands-on work experience. We have also expanded the applicant pool for the female-focused Whitney French Design scholarship in honor of a former teammate to include students from non-traditional design education programs, such as boot camps. We still have a robust university recruiting program, but we continue to rethink how we target and engage with students in order to diversify our talent pool.

I’m encouraged by the effort and energy to continuously develop and refine quality alternative education programs. The idea isn’t new, but it has never been more relevant and necessary. They will play an important role in leveling the playing field by providing access to training, education, and the opportunity for a brighter future to many who would not otherwise have it.

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