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Jonette Christian of Holden is a founder of Mainers For Sensible Immigration Policy.
Technology is transforming our future, creating inconceivable wealth, employing more than 12 million workers, and adding 200,000 good paying jobs a year. But who gets the jobs and who doesn’t?
According to The Seattle Times, 71 percent of the tech workers in Silicon Valley are foreign born, and 40 percent in Seattle. Many are here on guest worker visas provided by Congress. And the numbers have steadily increased.
And who doesn’t get the jobs? According to a recent NAACP report, “State of Tech Diversity: The Black Tech Ecosystem,” Blacks and Latinos in America aren’t getting tech jobs. Black talent constitutes 13 percent of the U.S. workforce and 8.6 percent of STEM graduates, but only 3.6 percent of technical workers, leading Ivory Toldson, director of innovation and research strategy at the NAACP to conclude: “Diversity in tech is a modern civil rights issue, and we cannot afford to be indifferent to the unsettling statistics in this report.”
Per the Los Angeles Times, the tech miracle that created most of California’s wealth in the last decade is “functionally barely open to Black and Latino people.”
Companywide initiatives aren’t the answer. Take Google, for instance. In 2014, 1.9 percent of their workforce was Black. Eight years and $150 million of diversity initiatives later, that proportion rose to a paltry 3.7 percent in 2020
Tech employers often claim a “pipeline problem.” But in 2016, 8.6 percent of STEM graduates in the U.S. were Black, and 10 percent were Latino, according to the Los Angeles Times article. And if foreign countries are producing better trained workers than American schools, then tech companies should lobby Congress for better schools, not more foreign workers.
Obviously, there are multiple barriers. STEM education in K-12 and post-secondary education for minority students needs improvement. But according to an industry insider focused on discrimination in the tech industry who was quoted by the Times, the problem is not primarily due to education but to “access and support.” The tech industry’s reliance on personal relationships perpetuates a network system that disadvantages Black workers and entrepreneurs.
Companies need to “do the hard work of inspecting everything from hiring and investment practices, to who runs the HR department to root out practices that alienate and exclude underrepresented groups,” Freada Kapor Klein, a founding partner at the venture capital firm Kapor Capital, told the Times.
In that vein, companies need to examine their over reliance on foreign guest workers. Studies show that H-1B visa workers, marketed as the “best and brightest,” possess skillsets little different from their domestic counterparts, but are paid significantly less. Sixty percent are paid below market wages, according to an assessment by the Economic Policy Institute, and, like indentured servitude, employers can yank their visas should they complain.
Big Tech companies routinely max out the annual limit, and implore Congress to increase their supply. Again.
The availability of cheap foreign labor isn’t the only barrier facing Black tech workers. But it is one that could be quickly solved if Congress would say “no” to its Big Tech donors.
If we ever decide to tackle racial wealth gaps with something more muscular than bias trainings and public shaming, then we need to get serious about jobs and stop giving away the best ones. More good paying jobs for Black and Latino Americans is the road to national healing, expanding the tax base, reducing our debt, and shrinking income disparities. For the nation, there are simply no down sides to tight labor markets.
The tech industry is a national treasure, our pride and joy. It is also overly indulged by Congress, and in need of tough love. Congress should ignore the incessant clamor for more foreign workers and deliberately promote tight labor markets that force employers to prioritize recruiting, mentoring, and hiring vulnerable Americans.
The tech titans need a reminder: We’re all in this together. Let’s not blow a phenomenal opportunity.