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5 things the CIO needs to know about workplace diversity

It's becoming harder to find tech staff, particularly in traditional non-geeky organizations. Here are new places to look and reasons why a more diverse workforce is worth seeking out.

Back in the day, hiring someone to work in the IT department was easy. You posted an ad in the newspaper looking for computer science college graduates, or you visited schools that offered computer science degrees and took your pick.

Now, though, things are different. First of all, chances are you don’t need someone with the heavy theoretical background that a computer science degree provides. Instead, you need to hire people who know how to use the products you've already deployed or for which you have budgeted.

Second, computer science graduates are getting scarcer. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of people getting computer science degrees decreased 36 percent between 2003 and 2004 and 2008 and 2009, though it increased 46 percent between 2008 and 2009 and 2013 and 2014. Yet, because the demand for computer science graduates has exploded, that still isn’t enough.

Then, when you remind yourself that neither Microsoft founder Bill Gates nor Apple founder Steve Jobs earned college degrees—let alone computer science degrees—you can wonder just how much people really need those degrees.

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Hire the nontechnical

Jobs argued that computer science, engineering, and other technical degrees are relatively important. At the unveiling of the iPad 2, Jobs reportedly said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Clearly, all the liberal arts and humanities majors in the world couldn’t have created something like the iPad 2 without the help of skilled engineers. Still, the concept is worth considering. There are those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that technical disciplines such as engineering and computer science promote too much black-and-white thinking and less of the nuance that can be important in business. They argue that education, particularly technical education, is predicated on regurgitating spoon-fed existing knowledge rather than on creating knowledge.

Research has also borne out the value of a degree outside computer science, even in high tech. For example, in one survey, 652 U.S.-born CEOs and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies found that only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and 2 percent held degrees in mathematics. “The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, and arts and the humanities,” the study says.

CIOs and IT staffing firms say the skills they need most are collaboration, problem-solving, and communications—all of which can be developed by any motivated college student,” writes Carolyn Duffy Marsan in a Network World article. “When CIOs are surveyed about the top skills they are looking for in entry-level and mid-level employees, they cite few technical skills. Instead, their top concerns are ethics, critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication skills, according to the 2008 CIO survey compiled by the Society for Information Management. The technical skills that are in demand—programming, database, and system analysis—are ranked 10 or lower on CIOs' priority list.” In fact, business students can often do a better job than can computer science students, she adds.

“Our last two hires were people with cultural anthropology degrees and social work degrees, and we are very happy with these hires,” says Samuel Holcman, chairman of the Pinnacle Business Group, a Pinckney, Mich., enterprise architecture consultancy. “They are not looking for a ‘solution.’ They are looking to explicitly represent the opportunity or problem,” says Holcman. “More important is what is being represented and in what sequence: business opportunity or problem first, and then dig into the ‘solution toolbox,’ of which IT is one tool in the toolbox.”

How to find them: It may not be difficult, because unfortunately for them—but fortunately for you—liberal arts students tend to have more difficulty finding jobs than do computer science and engineering students. When you post a job ad, think about the skills the job really requires. For example, does your front-line tech support person really need to know how to program? Or could an empathetic psychology graduate who’s good at eliciting information from angry customers and calming them down do even better?

Hire digital natives

The downside of hiring young people is that they need training; the employer cannot assume the new staff can hit the ground running. But that may no longer be the case with millennials, the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Millennials are generally familiar with PCs and programming conceptually, even if they don’t yet know the details of how to write code. But today’s young workers have the base knowledge enabling them to learn new technologies, particularly when you can offer a skilled technical mentor, a good book, or a product-specific class. The result is that your company gains more knowledge workers, with the subject-matter expertise you need.

“When it comes to problem-solving, millennials are self-sufficient when they can be and collaborative with one another when they can’t,” says David Card, an analyst at GigaOm Pro, in his two-part report, "Millennials in the Enterprise: Strategies for Supporting the New Digital Workforce." “They’re also highly engaged with technology, and many are interested in learning more.”

Keep in mind, too, that millennials tend to blur the line between work and life. And if that means they’re checking Facebook at work, chances are it also means they’re answering late-arriving work email from home.

How to find them: You may have them on staff already, perhaps even as interns. "The important thing is to listen to what they have to say and look for the ones who suggest new computer-based projects or technologies," notes Card. "Then give them the time and the tools they need to learn the technology and solve the problem on their own. Forward-thinking IT managers will gear solutions and policies around those concepts, and engineer FAQs or self-help portals that behave like search, social networks, or forums.”

Seek out women and minorities

Women and minorities are becoming an increasingly important presence online. For example, the Pew Research Center found that as of 2016, 86 percent of women use the Internet, compared with 89 percent of men. (But we still see incidents such as the Gap U.K.’s set of ads that identified a toddler boy as a “little scholar” and a toddler girl as a “social butterfly.”) Other demographic factors such as race, income, and education all show a convergence in Internet use as well.

However, these findings are not represented well in high-tech companies, where “the cultural perception (and projection) of digital creatives are the young, hip, black-rimmed-glasses-wearing white guy or girl with a messenger bag,” writes Shane B. Santiago, president and chief creative officer at SBS Studios, a digital creative agency. “This poses the question: Can you effectively serve a demographic that isn’t employed at the highest levels of your organization?” 

Part of the problem is that organizations may claim they can't find such staff. “People of color don’t do a good job of marketing themselves so they can be found," says Wayne Sutton, an African-American entrepreneur and social media consultant who writes the blog SocialWayne.com. "When opportunities become available, are they putting them out there where everyone can find it? The paths are not going to cross.”

How to find them: This is a two-pronged issue. If women and minorities are not applying for your open positions, it’s important to cast your net wider and look for organizations that focus on women and minorities in the field where you’re trying to hire. For example, the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT) focuses on a number of under-represented groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and people with disabilities. It offers resource lists with a number of organizations geared toward different groups and professions. Another such organization, focused on women in IT, is Systers.

That said, it’s important to be fair when you do receive an application from a female or minority person. A number of studies have found that employers are less likely to consider a resume from someone with what appears to be an obviously African-American name, reports The New York Times. “A study published several years ago in The American Economic Review titled ‘Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?’ found that applicants with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.” In fact, the article went on, blacks are going so far as to remove all traces of black organizations and to change their names to sound more “white” on their resumes and job applications.

Work with the disabled

The wonderful thing about computers is the degree to which they can transcend many physical and mental disabilities, without much accommodation required. But some organizations go even further to specifically train disabled people for jobs in the IT industry that are detail-oriented and don’t require much in-person contact, such as software testing.

How to find them: CMD-IT has resources for some groups dealing with the disabled, such as the blind. The article cited above also lists a number of organizations dealing with hiring the disabled in IT fields, particularly people with autism. 

And beyond: Other nontraditional hiring methods

In the current economic climate, both employers and employees are thinking outside the box. For example, venture capital firm Sequoia Capital “crowdsourced” its search for up to 20 graphic designers by having people upload their portfolios and getting them voted on.

And finally, there’s the case of Matt Epstein, who once set up a website called GooglePleaseHire.Me—where he posted his resume, a request for an interview, and a series of stunts designed to call attention to his search. Did he get a job at Google? No, but he did get one at a startup and had interviews with a number of major computer vendors.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.