Building Racial Equity and Social Justice Into IT Pre-Apprenticeships

Aundrea Gregg, Organizational Development Consultant

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Despite the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for skilled IT talent has not diminished.

According to the July 2, 2020 Employment Situation Summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 227,000 IT jobs were created in June 2020. The resilience of the IT job market during this period of unprecedented uncertainty underscores the importance of IT expertise to economic recovery and highlights the ongoing need for pathways that prepare people for in-demand IT positions. However, as training providers across the country work to meet the growing need for skilled IT talent, it’s important to ensure that professional development strategies include a comprehensive racial equity and social justice lens.

Racial bias and a lack of diversity have long characterized the tech industry. An October 2019 Wired review of diversity reports released by tech employers found that the industry has made little progress toward racial and gender parity over the past five years. From 2014 to 2019, the number of Black and Latinx technical employees at Google and Microsoft increased by less than 1 percent. At Google, Black employees represented 2 percent of the staff in 2019 and Latinx employees represented 3 percent, while white employees made up 48 percent of the search giant’s head count that year. Additionally, diversity reports released by Apple, Facebook, and Google revealed that 77 percent of employees were men and just 23 percent were women in 2019.

Statistics such as those provide a glimpse into an industry still predominantly skewed toward white men.

To keep growing, the IT sector must embrace workforce solutions that reach more people and mobilize more diverse populations of jobseekers. IT training programs, including pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships, can be pivotal mechanisms for increasing access to IT careers for underrepresented individuals, including women, opportunity youth, and people of color. These programs often serve as a starting point or a “bridge” to advanced IT training and provide connections to career opportunities. Because they generally have low barriers to entry and are often offered at the community level, pre-apprenticeship programs in particular have a unique ability to reach underrepresented populations.

JFF has recently expanded its work in IT to increase on-ramps into the sector. Two recent publications — one focused on transforming existing IT training programs and another on adapting high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs for IT — offer training providers and employers recommendations for how to make access to the industry more equitable for all jobseekers. JFF’s new IT pre-apprenticeship framework highlights best practices from a range of IT training programs and expands on the six characteristics of a high-quality pre-apprenticeship. When paired with a strong commitment to equity, this framework can serve as a guide for programs looking to build racial equity and social justice into strong IT training practices. Here are four ways IT training programs can build equity:

  • Ensure that equity is embedded into their own foundational organizational structures. With equity as a foundational component, programs will be more likely to embody and demonstrate the practices of equity and inclusivity they ultimately hope participants will encounter in the workplace. Organizational core values, advisory boards, hiring and onboarding practices, and professional development offerings are just a few structures programs can review to ensure that a racial equity and social lens exists.
  • Remove requirements that create unnecessary barriers to IT training and career pathways. The IT sector remains heavily reliant on bachelor’s degrees as a gateway for entry. However, applicants of color are less likely to hold a degree. In 2017, Black students made up only 9 percent of college students graduating with a computer science degree and Latinx students made up 10 percent. To address the barriers degree requirements can create, IT training programs should remove prerequisites that are not essential background knowledge for the training they provide.
  • Ramp-up coaching, career exploration, and wraparound supports. IT pre-apprenticeships offer participants opportunities to get acquainted with the IT sector. They also offer supplemental resources that help people launch their careers, including mentoring relationships and network-building opportunities. Programs should expand coaching and other career services to give the populations they serve a venue where they can voice workplace concerns and receive advocacy support. Additionally, partnering or securing funding to provide resources such as free training materials or access to supports such as transportation stipends can make a difference in creating access and opportunity for diverse populations to persist through training.
  • Embed a commitment to equity and diversity into partnerships with employers. Because they serve as intermediaries to their employer partners, IT training providers are well positioned to promote equity and influence industry culture and hiring practices. When they first begin establishing relationships with potential employer partners, training providers should make it clear that they are committed to equity and outline the ways equity-based training models can add value add to employers’ workforce strategies. By working with employer partners who share their commitment to equity, training providers can ensure that the people who participate in their programs will go to work alongside people who support them and believe in their talent.

An example of how to effectively apply an equity lens to IT training comes from Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle-based coding school for women and gender-diverse adults. With a focus on serving low-income people and underrepresented communities, Ada offers tuition-free courses and places equity and diversity at the center of its talent development strategies.

That emphasis on equity and diversity is present in its preparatory program, Jump Start, and in its core curriculum. Both include modules with a social justice focus. Ada additionally prepares students to advocate for themselves at work and bring their full selves to the workplace. Both students and Ada employees receive training and coaching support on topics such as workplace bias and gender diversity.

Ada’s driving purpose is to change the face of the IT industry, and the organization does not view its mission as being complete if its students aren’t successful at worksites or aren’t retained by employers. But achieving that goal involves more than helping its students develop IT skills. “We want to make sure the industry is ready for them,” said Lisa Flores, Ada’s director of program and operations, referring to the organization’s students.

Recognizing that the tech industry has room to grow when it comes to effectively integrating diverse perspectives, Ada has positioned itself as an advisor for companies looking to make meaningful strides toward equity and diversity. In addition to developing a talent pipeline that is equity-based, Ada provides employers with resources that can help them develop equitable work cultures.

Beyond meeting the tech industry’s future workforce needs, embedding racial equity and social justice into IT training and career pathways is about ensuring that all workers receive fair and impartial treatment in the workplace. IT training programs, as well as employers, must transform and enhance their practices to create an opportunity that people from diverse populations feel is worth pursuing.

If workplaces do not foster inclusive environments, retain diverse talent, or offer equal advancement opportunities, people from underrepresented populations may not feel that the promise of an IT career is worth the investment of time and rigorous training. Programs should be taking the time right now to examine their practices and develop road maps for equity-based training.

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JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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