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Investing in Diversity to Fix IT Skills Shortages

Facing IT skills shortages in growing areas like automation and ML, companies can fill their needs with upskilling and diverse hiring practices.

There have been persistent skills shortages in the IT industry in the United States for years, and that shortage is most acute in high-growth areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. But IT skills shortages don’t only represent a challenge — they are also an opportunity to focus on equity, diversity and inclusivity in the sector.

“Now more than ever, we are able to successfully create pathways to building equity of access to IT job opportunities within your organization,” said Damien Howard, executive vice president of social ventures for Per Scholas.

The data supports his point. KPMG research done last year found that nearly half of surveyed organizations planned to fundamentally change some offerings in the next three years, and 67% struggled to find the right tech talent. And in growing fields like AI and ML that rely on, and hire, employees from other countries, visa restrictions have made that hiring more difficult in recent years.

Reskilling and Upskilling

Howard, who spoke at Interop’s virtual conference earlier this fall, addressed IT skills shortages — a problem that spans the globe. In Europe, the demand for information and communication technology (ICT) workers is growing by 4% a year, according to the European Commission.

Technological skills will be increasingly in high demand as the current decade unfolds, with sectors such as machine learning, cloud computing and encryption at the forefront, according to the World Economic Forum. Some of the needed talent can be found by reskilling and upskilling existing employees, Howard said during the session. But the situation also presents organizations with an opportunity to make the industry more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

Reskilling and upskilling are two valuable solutions to these staffing problems, Howard said. “We have a diversity disparity in the IT industry,” he said, adding that 61% of its workforce is white, 22% is Asian, 8% is Black or African American, 7% is Hispanic or Latinx, and 2% is multiracial.

More than Lip Service Needed

Providing access to IT opportunities through measures such as skills training and changes in job requirements is an important way to change the makeup of the industry, Howard said. Failing to provide the opportunity to grow professionally — or an environment that supports employees of different backgrounds — can make retention and recruitment difficult.

Some companies are working to create that environment. For example, tech leaders made diversity pledges as civil rights protests grew this summer, but it remains to be seen what action will back the pledges and the changes that will result.

In other cases, tech employees are taking matters into their own hands. For example, Black in AI fosters discussion and collaboration among Black people in the artificial intelligence field, and works to bring new Black people into the industry.

This work to change things matters because extending opportunities to a wider group of people isn’t just the right thing to do — it can also provide financial dividends. McKinsey research found that more diverse companies did better on profitability and performance, for example.

It is the time for the industry to change, Howard said, and providing access to IT opportunities — through skills training, changes in job requirements, recruitment and retention initiatives, and personal and institutional bias training — is an important way to do that.

“'Now more than ever, we are able to successfully create pathways to building equity of access to IT job opportunities within your organization,” he said.

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