How to recruit for diversity

Building digital skills at historically black colleges and universities is a win-win for graduates and employers

  • Tech CEOs are under pressure to develop strategies to recruit a diverse workforce
  • Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are partnering with the private sector to develop more graduates with strong digital skills
  • Companies with high levels of racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have higher earnings than their competitors

Recruiting and retaining top talent perennially ranks as one of CEOs’ biggest worries. In the tech sector, however, recruiting is becoming a dual challenge. Not only must executives deepen their talent pool—especially when it comes to candidates with strong digital skills—but also make it more racially diverse.

In 2014, the first year that some tech companies began disclosing diversity statistics, African Americans accounted for 13% of the U.S. population but only 1% of the tech labor force, according to research by Morning Consult, a data intelligence firm. Business leaders vowed to do better. Six years later, progress has been negligible.

One reason is that Black college graduates face systemic barriers that most white graduates don’t, including higher unemployment and lower wages for the same or similar jobs that their white peers compete for.

Black graduates also struggle to compete with whites in the area of digital literacy. Although Black workers comprise 12% of the overall labor force, they represent 36% of workers with limited or no digital skills, according to the National Skills Coalition.

Several large U.S. companies, including PwC, Lyft, FedEx, and JP Morgan Chase, believe they can expand their talent base and improve racial equality in the workplace. They have begun partnering with dozens of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to make digital skills a part of their core curricula and boost recruiting efforts with these schools.

“It’s a business imperative,” says Rod Adams, PwC’s US & Mexico talent acquisition and onboarding leader. “We know that we will be more successful with a diverse workforce.”

Diverse workforces do, in fact, add to the bottom line, according to a McKinsey study: Businesses in the top quartile of racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have higher earnings compared to their competitors.

Hiring HBCU graduates makes sense. While they represent only 3% of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they educate almost 20% of all Black college graduates.

Teach the teachers

So far, public-private initiatives at HBCUs have tended to focus more on faculty than students, because of their ability to scale their efforts. Teach a dozen students how to code and you get a dozen coders. Teach the teachers and they’ll pass those skills on to a new generation of college grads.

“When we began working with faculty, they knew that their students needed a different level of tech skills, but they didn’t know what,” says Adams. “We set out to show them how to have a more tech-enabled experience with students.”

In 2019, PwC assembled dozens of educators from these schools for a crash course in digital skills. During several immersive, two-day “analytics academies,” professors used workflow and automation tools, explored data analytics and data visualization tools, and learned the basics of blockchain development.

Among the attendees was Barbara Adams, dean of South Carolina State University’s business school.


Percentage of Black college graduates educated by HBCUs

“For years, our students have used spreadsheet applications to analyze data,” she says.
“The fundamentals of accounting haven’t changed, but processes have. We have got to teach our students these technologies if they’re going to succeed beyond the classroom.”

In addition to the analytics academies—which this year included a follow-up virtual session with participants due to Covid-19—PwC also awarded $10,000 grants to 28 HBCUs to expand digital-skills tools and training. At South Carolina State, for example, Adams expects a new accounting course to launch in spring 2021 that focuses on tech-enabled data analysis, visualization, and other emerging processes.

The PwC is also making its “Digital Fitness” App available to all students at participating HBCUs free of charge. The app, which PwC has used to upskill 30,000 of its own employees, tests digital skills and designs a custom curriculum based on its evaluation.

Prep the pipeline

The ultimate payoff of these grassroots efforts, of course, is recruitment for career jobs. PwC and other employers need access to talented entry-level workers just as much as Black graduates need good job opportunities.

Forging that connection may be the biggest benefit of skills initiatives at HBCUs, says
Jason Wingard, dean emeritus and professor of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. “Partnerships between corporations and HBCUs have to go beyond training,” Wingard says. “What’s needed is a comprehensive pipeline strategy so that students are actually being considered for and hired into competitive jobs.”

Building that pipeline is front of mind for many of the companies partnering for digital skills. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has committed to hiring 4,000 Black college graduates by 2024. PwC has boosted the number of HBCUs it recruits from to 35 (up from 7) in three years, while tripling its hiring of HBCU grads.

Opening the door to high-wage, high-skill careers for Black graduates could hardly be more urgent. As automation reshapes entire industries, Black workers, who disproportionately hold low-wage, low-skill occupations, are at disproportionately high risk of losing their jobs in the next decade, according to McKinsey.

With the surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the spotlight it places on equality for people of color, the tech industry has never been more incented to get its diversity numbers moving in the right direction.