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Diversifying Tech: New Approaches Will Build a Better Workforce

Nationwide, organizations are grappling with drastic changes to the workforce. But some are taking this as an opportunity to bring people from historically underrepresented backgrounds into the tech sector.

tech workforce, networking, job, employment, careers
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In recent years, myriad organizations have increasingly been focusing on diversifying the tech workforce — in the public sector and at large.

While high-level tech roles primarily belong to men, some are looking to change that and bring more genders into these roles. Recently, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) released a study on diversifying state IT, and while approaches vary, the goal is the same: embrace the largely untapped talent pool.


While Maryland has been investing in its workforce in recent years through initiatives like EARN Maryland, a recent announcement to eliminate the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state jobs aims further bolster and diversify the workforce.

As explained by the Maryland Department of Labor’s Secretary Tiffany Robinson, the challenge to fill open positions is one that states across the nation are dealing with. But by tapping into the talent pool of prospective employees that do not have a four-year degree, she said the state saw a “flood of applications” in the first weeks following the change.

Robinson said the degree requirement created a barrier for prospective employees — particularly in IT jobs — who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs). The state found that nationally, over 50 percent of Black, Hispanic and rural workers are STARs — 61, 55 and 66 percent, respectively.

And one of the unplanned impacts of this change, she said, was tapping into the talent pool within the state workforce for promotions.

National Skills Coalition Senior Fellow Amanda Bergson-Shilcock explained that the lack of diversity in the tech workforce is not due to a lack of skills and interest in these careers, but rather that employers — both in public agencies and otherwise — are not effectively creating the type of working environment that helps diverse talent flourish.

Bergson-Shilcock specifically underlined Maryland’s shift to skills-based hiring as an effective way to combat this issue, citing the effects of structural racism as creating barriers for people to acquire this type of formal degree.

“When public agencies take steps to say, ‘We want to hire the broadest base of talent possible, and we want to recognize that talent in all its forms,’ that’s a really powerful step as opposed to fixating on one particular type of credential,” she said.

Another factor impacting this effort is policy, and Bergson-Shilcock suggested stakeholders first understand how historical and current policies have institutionalized inequities.

For example, apprenticeship programs that limit participation to those fluent in reading and writing English, or those that do not offer child care for participants, will exclude capable and diverse candidates.

Companies like Bitwise Industries have aimed to address some of these factors in the workforce training they offer.

As the company’s Chief Workforce Officer Michelle Skoor explained, offering services like child care, transportation and mental health support has helped eliminate participation barriers. They explained that these barriers disproportionately impact the communities Bitwise aims to serve, so addressing them allows for participants to be successful in the training program.

And this approach has been effective in training diverse candidates — 50 percent of the company’s trainees belong to historically underrepresented demographics.

Skoor said that part of that success is demystifying what a career in tech means, but another part is recognizing the value of hiring based on work ethic rather than experience.

“Folks come to us with a wealth of experience that does shape who they are as a technologist; we’re just teaching them the skills that are necessary,” Skoor said.

Robinson explained that Maryland is working diligently to bolster training and inclusion programs to help new and current employees find the resources they need to succeed — a movement she believes is happening with many employers to boost retention.

The impact of Maryland’s shift to skills-based hiring has demonstrated the quantity of qualified candidates that may not meet traditional workforce requirements but that would be capable of filling the roles. Robinson said she believes other states are looking to follow suit, noting that she has already been in talks with someone in Virginia’s Department of Labor.

“With the right tools and mindset from an employer, this can be done in any state, and this can be done by any private employer,” she said.

Another major shift that has become evident in recent years is that digital skills are now important in every industry and virtually every occupation, said Bergson-Shilcock.

The pandemic accelerated this shift, and she said it has resulted in employers looking to skill and upskill their employees.

“I think the most exciting thing is, there’s a whole network of people on the ground who’ve been doing digital inclusion work and digital skill-building work, essentially with no money, no public funds,” she said. “So the Digital Equity Act is a huge leap forward in that it’s going to be providing almost $3 billion over the next five years to U.S. communities to support that kind of digital skill-building work.”

The coming months will be an opportunity, she said, for state governors to align their digital equity plans with their workforce and economic development plans to provide the road map for public spending over the next five years.


Skoor advised agencies looking to diversify their tech workforce to partner with apprentice programs in the space. Partnering with community organizations can help fill the gaps.

An example they gave was in working with Butte County Office of Education, which works with a large justice-involved population. This collaborative effort has led Bitwise to offer specialized courses and experiences with access to other resources and services.

Another valuable form of collaboration they mentioned is cohorts — from those for women, to nonbinary individuals, to veterans and beyond — as they can help build trust in a program among these underrepresented groups.

Bergson-Shilcock also underlined the role of cohort models for peer support and mentoring.

And industry partnerships among employers can also be a powerful tool for creating talent pipelines, she said. For example, if three employers work together with a local community college and request the creation of a training program, that aggregate demand could justify such a project.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.