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Building a Diverse Workforce from the STEM Up
Thursday, April 27, 2017 6:30 AM

Recruit top tech talent by using the CU advantage.

Uber’s recent mishaps have shined an uncomfortable but very necessary light on the male-dominated “bro-grammer” culture at many Silicon Valley tech firms. Now in full-on damage control mode, the ride-hailing service has opted for transparency, releasing diversity reports that reveal a workforce composition basically on par with its Silicon Valley brethren.

As usual, however, the real takeaways reside a few layers below the headlines—and they point to issues that extend well beyond Uber or Silicon Valley.

Uber’s 36 percent ratio of female employees company-wide compares favorably to Google’s 31 percent. Isolating tech jobs, however, the share of women drops to 15 percent—lower than the high-teen percentages found at other Silicon Valley bellwethers.

Even those troubling figures are likely generous. There’s no set definition of a “tech job,” and I suspect these firms stretch the criteria as wide as they can. (It’s worth noting the stats exclude drivers, which Uber emphatically categorizes as independent contractors.)

On the overall numbers, it’s not surprising to see gender equity improve as companies mature, although shares in the 30s are hardly worth crowing about.

A growing customer base tends to lead to demand for roles that have traditionally been filled by women, such as account management and customer service. While such positions are nothing to sneeze at, the primary issue remains in the tech ranks.

It’s no secret that the U.S. suffers from a shortage of tech talent and that essentially any capable programmer who wants a job can find one. Opportunities to fix the imbalance exist on both the supply and demand sides of the equation.

Numerous initiatives are underway to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education at the local and state levels, across all age groups, and by both the public and private sectors.

The dual goals are to increase student preparedness and to encourage interest in the field, particularly among young girls, who continue to opt out at higher rates despite recent improvements.

Given the enthusiasm for gaming, apps, and mobile communication, making tech cool shouldn’t be an insurmountable challenge. Finding training paths that retain that enthusiasm may pose a bigger hurdle.

Speaking of cool, as long as there is a programmer shortage the onus will remain on companies to create propositions that make their job postings appealing. The evidence shows that frothy compensation packages only go so far to seal the deal.

With Google a fixture atop Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For” list and several “new economy” players not far behind, tech recruiting remains a challenge for fields many view as “less sexy.”

One way to level the playing field is to reframe opportunities in terms that appeal to candidates’ interests beyond technical requirements and pay scales, creating a viable alternative to the Silicon Valley narrative.

Consider these tactics:

  • Help candidates visualize how their work can make a difference. New recruits know (or at least think they know) what they’d do at Google. “Banking,” by comparison, sounds boring. Provide some examples of what their work might contribute to. Emphasize the credit union mission, creating differentiation from big banks. Consider the recent clever GE ad campaign, where a college grad accepts a job and his friends picture him working at the General Electric of 1920.
  • Emphasize culture and work/life balance. Working hard/playing hard has its limits. Step back from the glamour of a Silicon Valley nametag, and it’s clear you’ve signed on for an all-consuming lifestyle. This model appeals to some but not all. It’s also an opening to counterprogram against “bro-grammer” culture.
  • Find budding innovators within your existing ranks. The Filene Research Institute has done an exemplary job of catalyzing innovation from within the credit union movement through initiatives like its i3 program. The program is now in its 13th year, convening groups of innovators and “drawing power from diversity of race, gender, age, position, and geography,” says Filene CEO Mark Meyer. One continuing challenge: “The quiet executors aren’t easy to find,” he says. “They’re in your organization, but they’re not talking about obstacles—they’re just overcoming them.”
  • Craft mentorship connections, outside the credit union if necessary. Frankly, tech firms possess a significant advantage in this area. Credit unions’ goal should be to narrow the gap. Young talent and under-represented groups need role models as sounding boards and to help chart a path forward. If there are no natural in-house matches, consider fostering connections elsewhere in the community.
  • Offer co-op programs. Providing project work to current students is a great way to engage with the community, audition future candidates, and create visibility among a broader applicant pool.

The U.S. shortage of tech talent does not lend itself to quick fixes. Like a baseball team that has allowed its minor league system to atrophy, we must dedicate ourselves to the time-consuming fundamentals of rebuilding the pipeline.

The increasing focus on STEM education is an encouraging sign that many influencers have gotten the memo.

In the meantime, credit unions will need to be creative in competing for scarce talent. Fortunately, they have a message that can resonate with key workforce segments if communicated effectively.

By selling the credit union story and making savvy internal assignments, it’s possible to weather the storm until reinforcements arrive.

Credit unions may well find their most fertile ground to be among the female tech ranks. Solving internal and societal problems at once would be doubly sweet.

And if you encounter some bumps along the road, take heart: the Chicago Cubs rode a similar path to the World Championship.

Source: CUNA

Glen Sarvady is managing partner at 154 Advisors and senior payments expert with Best Innovation Group, a CUNA consulting partner. Follow him on Twitter via @154Advisors.