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Tech leaders must make post-COVID upskilling a priority

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From death tolls to unforgiving unemployment rates, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has felt like a proverbial gut punch — one that has brought many livelihoods to the brink of an abyss. And no group seems to have borne the brunt of its blow more than minorities. Specifically, Black Americans, making up a little over 13% of the United States population, have died at double the rate of other groups, according to APM Research Lab.

Aside from the Black community’s relatively high mortality risk, the pandemic is positioned to leave behind deeper, more enduring economic wounds — reversing more than a decade of progress. The Executive Leadership Council (ELC) reported in a recent webinar that over 40% of jobs occupied by Black Americans are at risk due to the current pandemic. And that’s in addition to the already impending impact automation will have on Black jobs; a 2019 McKinsey report showed that Black Americans, employees and small business owners alike, are those most likely to be replaced by automation. The same study found that, as it stands, Black Americans are not positioned to experience the same gains as other groups during the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Without mitigation strategies in place, there is an increased probability that a disproportionate number of Black Americans will suffer more significant economic disparities; thus, widening the already massive wealth gap in the United States. Companies shaping the future of our society have a unique opportunity to advance socioeconomic development by upskilling minorities to bridge skill gaps, increase social and economic mobility, and lighten the burden of life post-COVID on one of our country’s most vulnerable communities.

The upskilling imperative

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”

– James Baldwin

With the demand for tech talent increasing and over 918,000 unfilled tech jobs in the market, there is an ample and undisputed opportunity to upskill minority workforces to prepare them for vital careers.

Most, not all, could agree that there is no institution or group more well suited to address this challenge than leaders of the technology industry. With a combined market value of $6.4 trillion, the “Big Five” technology giants, e.g., Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, among others, are fundamental and seemingly indispensable parts of our daily lives, and they are continuing to define our future faster than any other institutions.

COVID-19 has multiplied our reliance on technology and enlarged the tech industry’s already heavy hand. For example, Business Insider reported that amidst the current economic uncertainties and growing civil unrest, Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise by $48 billion. While the CEOs of Zoom and Microsoft increased their net worth by $2.5 billion and $15.7 billion, respectively.

Fortunately, these tech giants and many Fortune 500 companies have already begun providing resources to support actualizing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future of work in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft have also signed a Racial Equity Pledge, committing to hire 100,000 low-income, diverse New Yorkers by 2030. The pledges are backed by funding promises: $100 million from Apple, $18.5 million from Amazon, and $209.5 million from Microsoft.

Another excellent example of an organization spearheading this effort is Rodney Sampson’s Opportunity Hub (OHUB), founded in 2013. The organization is focused on building a thriving technology, entrepreneurship, and investment ecosystem to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to the technology, startup, and venture ecosystem as a path to ensuring racial equity in the future of work and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It recently graduated its first cohort of 27 new full-stack developers — 100% of whom identify as Black or Latinx — and I’m one of them. The work is deep and meaningful, and its leaders are on the front lines, provoking conversation and taking steps to build infrastructures and value chains committed to racial equity and economic empowerment through access and opportunity.

The next big steps …

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

— Nelson Mandela

It is my hope that technology leaders from across the industry build COVID-19 technology relief initiatives to support the upskilling of minorities post-COVID. Because these are people with the capacity to exercise exponential thinking, tools, and strategies to dismantle broken systems and improve the shared community.

There is no single best way to launch such an initiative — they could come in many forms. But here is a shortlist of ideas to get you started:

  1. Black people are not being hired at a promising frequency across technology. For example, CNBC reported in June that “Facebook showed the smallest increase — going from 3% to 3.8% of black workers in the past five years.” To accelerate recovery post-COVID, tech companies can build high-growth pipelines to increase the number of Black and Brown people they employ.
  2. Digital Responsibility reported that “Fifty-six percent of teachers in low-income schools say that their students’ inadequate access to technology is a ‘major challenge’ for using technology as a teaching aid.” What if you could offer high-need families free computers or grants to acquire machines to support distance learning? Additionally, what if you could sponsor those same students to ensure they have continuous internet access by providing unlimited hotspots?
  3. Education is a major determinant of economic and social mobility, yet the Common Core curriculum is failing to prepare students for the careers of the future. Tech companies could produce a series of K-12 targeted technology workshops or webinars to support students and teachers affected by the digital divide and distance learning. This is especially important in cases where instructors are nearing retirement and lacking technical savvy. Moreover, it’s an ideal opportunity to shift students’ minds from consuming tech for entertainment to leveraging it along with new vocational skills to participate in innovation and contribute to a competitive world economy.

Closing thoughts

Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all directly.” I share that to say this is not just Black or Latino America’s fight; this is America’s fight. I hope the technology community recognizes its moral responsibility to amplify minority empowerment as automation increases.

Systemic issues call for systemic solutions. My ask is that, as leaders, these companies use their power and influence to help eliminate roadblocks to progress. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, and it’s time to transform opportunity zones into innovation zones! There is still hope if we can work collaboratively and cooperatively to find solutions.

Kieran N. Blanks, Founder of Blankslate, LLC., is a design strategy and experience architect and a graduate of OHUB’s full-stack development bootcamp. He is actively using his energy, experience, and enthusiasm to promote diversity and inclusion in tech. He recently took on board member roles at Singularity University’s St. Louis chapter and the Walton Foundation’s UNCF K-12 Education Fellowship Alumni Council to continue his focus on equipping people of color with the right skills for the digital future.



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