At the Chelmsford headquarters of workforce management company Kronos, an employee time clock in the company’s lobby recently became the center of the universe for 10 UMass Lowell co-op students. The students were charged with reimagining the ubiquitous device, making important connections between innovation and its real-world applications and impact through that process. For Kronos, the project and the co-op partnership with UMass Lowell illustrates the value of diverse perspectives in promoting the company’s technical and business objectives.
“Everything we do, from volunteerism to charitable giving, is about engaging the next generation of our workforce,” says Barbara Vlacich, Kronos’ vice president of presales operations and sales effectiveness. The company’s leaders believe that diversity in its workforce is a strategic imperative, tapping partnerships like the one with UMass Lowell, along with internal and external programs, to bring a diverse pool of candidates to Kronos’ doorstep. Within this year’s co-op class, nearly 32 percent are students of color, and 26 percent are women.
“As the workforce continues to change, our products must evolve with it—and this evolution makes it critical for Kronos and tech companies like ours to have a diverse pool of employees who bring different backgrounds and perspectives to product development,” continues Vlacich. “These different perspectives help us best meet the needs of our customers and their diverse workforces.”
The approach also helps the company to fill key long-term workforce positions; of the 40 interns Vlacich has hosted within her department alone, half have become permanent Kronos employees.
Scores of data reinforce the hiring challenge in computer science-related fields. Juxtaposed with the 12,000 unique job ads posted for Massachusetts IT positions (Help Wanted Analytics), the 3,848 computer science/information technology degrees granted by Massachusetts’ public and private institutions in 2014 simply aren’t enough to meet demand.
Kronos’ focus on diversity is becoming a common refrain throughout Massachusetts’ innovation sector. From technology-reliant industries to health care fields like nursing and life sciences, organizations in the Commonwealth have acknowledged that they simply cannot maintain the workforce they need to deliver the products and services their brands promise without expanding the pool of diverse applicants. Yet across the state, the interest and participation in these fields among female students and students of color, although rising, remains low. On Massachusetts’ public campuses, just 15 percent of students in computer science programs are women, 10 percent are African American and 13 percent are Latino/a.
“We just can’t afford to leave people on the sidelines if we want to compete as a region in the global battle for technology talent,” says Tom Hopcroft, president and chief executive officer of MassTLC, whose 2020 Challenge initiative has set a goal of creating and filling 100,000 new tech sector jobs in Massachusetts by 2020. Hopcroft, who is also a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, points out that the data illustrating the state’s pipeline challenges do not even account for the economic loss incurred as leading technology companies unable to fill positions here relocate or expand their presence in other states.
For Massachusetts’ technology-driven companies, however, the “talent gap” challenge extends far beyond the simple math of filling empty desk chairs with qualified workers. The benefits of a diverse workforce, they say, impact their very ability to create the kinds of products and services that consumers want and need. “As a company, we believe that in order to serve our customers well, we need a workforce that reflects multiple sets of interests and experiences,” says Annmarie Levins, general manager for technology & civic engagement in the Cambridge office of Microsoft. “As our workforce has become more diverse, we’ve been able to build better products by being more sensitive to people’s needs—and most companies in the tech sector understand that.”
Indeed, as the applications of technology continue to proliferate, the need for diversity among those developing the applications is expanding. “If you don’t have women and underrepresented populations involved in designing systems, you won’t have systems that are friendly for all users,” says Rick Adrion, professor emeritus at UMass Amherst and principal investigator of the Commonwealth Alliance for IT Education (CAITE), whose mission is to broaden participation in computing and IT. “You’ll have tools created by someone who grew up on computer games, that aren’t necessarily intuitive for the broader community.”
This need for greater diversity at the product innovation level is well documented; the notion of the “sameness barrier” created by a homogenous workforce is often implicated as preventing truly disruptive innovation that leads to new and better products. Yet the same technical ubiquity that impacts our daily life is also at play throughout the workforce, demanding that employees at all levels of an organization, regardless of position, come equipped with technical skills.
“Here at Kronos, you’d be hard pressed to find a job that doesn’t rely on technology and require our employees to have a vast skill set,” says Vlacich. A focus on cultivating technical talent and interest among diverse candidates at all levels, then, becomes an economic imperative if Massachusetts’ companies and economy are to thrive. This includes the “middle skills” demanded within roles that are the backbone of technology careers but require less than a four-year degree to attain. According to the Harvard Business School, 69 percent of HR executives say their inability to attract and retain middle-skills talent frequently affects their firm’s performance.
Kevin Burns, chief information security officer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is personally engaged in work to spread the word about opportunities in the fast-growing cyber security field, where the educational threshold for career entry begins at community colleges. This is also where the majority of students of color in the public higher education system are clustered. “We need tactical roadmaps to recruit and retain people from underrepresented populations and help them become almost instantly successful in these careers,” says Burns. “There is so much opportunity.” With a certificate, people can secure well-paying jobs at firms that often fund public associate and baccalaureate programs for employees with support from the state. Burns is working as part of an advisory panel for MassBay Community College, helping to shape the curriculum for its cyber-security certificate program.
Similar efforts are underway at other community colleges and at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where BATEC (Broadening Advanced Technological Education Connections), funded by the National Science Foundation, is working with academic partners to develop curriculum and examine pathways in computing and IT that lead students from high school through college to careers. Part of that work, says Deborah Boisvert, principal investigator and executive director for BATEC, is simply familiarizing students with the college environment. “It’s about helping students whose parents didn’t attend college to simply have the confidence to walk onto a college campus,” she says. “And then it’s about helping them understand that within four or five courses, they’ll be employable.”
This same message is being spread through efforts at the company level throughout the Commonwealth, where co-op, intern and mentoring programs are helping to engage the diverse groups of potential employees the companies say they need.
At the Cambridge office of Microsoft, the company’s 12-week “Explore Microsoft” internship program provides hands-on training, mentoring and group project experience for freshman and sophomore college students, and encourages applications from underrepresented groups including women and minorities. The local Women@NERD and Blacks and Africans at Microsoft groups hold mock interview and mixer events for underrepresented students.
The popularity of one of these recent mock-interview recruiting events hosted through Blacks and Africans at Microsoft offers encouraging data that these efforts are gaining traction. The 60 slots available for the event, advertised through student groups at institutions where employees hold connections, were filled in just one week. “Internships and other hands-on experiences help students find their way to career options they wouldn’t otherwise know about,” says Tom Hopcroft. “Once the students are plugged in with these companies and opportunities, they reach out and help more students find jobs by showing them what is possible.”