Year in Review: Tech Talent and Diversity

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This post is one in a series of reports on significant issues for startups in 2015. In the past year, the startup community's voice helped drive notable debates in tech and entrepreneurship policy, but many of the tech world's policy goals in 2015, such as immigration and patent reform, remain unfulfilled. Check back for more year-end updates and continue to watch this space in 2016 as we follow policy issues affecting the startup community.

by Anna Duning and Ange Royall-Kahin

Lawmakers, industry leaders, and nonprofit groups alike contributed to important, and sometimes heated, conversations about America’s tech talent pool this year. The growing need for talented workers, the lack of diversity in the industry, and the vexed immigration system continue to pose challenges to both tech firms as well as policymakers.

Diversity

Additional tech companies joined some of the larger firms this year in releasing their diversity numbers. While the figures themselves didn’t inspire much confidence about industry diversity, we observed a growing recognition of the issue and commitment to creating a more inclusive tech industry. Engine participated in the Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco, where participants from across the country discussed challenges to improving the makeup of the tech community and solutions to making change. Several companies have also demonstrated good faith commitments to closing these gaps.

In Congress, Engine helped launch the Diversifying Tech Caucus in January to highlight the importance of diversity in the tech community and craft policy solutions to bring new people into this workforce. The bicameral, bipartisan Caucus, now with over 20 members, facilitated dialogues about startup efforts to diversify tech as well as the roles and obstacles veterans face in the industry. Another legislative group, the Congressional Black Caucus, also affirmed its commitment to diversifying the tech industry this year and launched Tech2020, an effort to increase the participation of African Americans in technology.

The White House and federal agencies also launched several initiatives this year to bolster and diversify the tech workforce:

  • In March, the White House announced TechHire, a national program to get more Americans the training they need to enter the tech workforce. Through partnerships with universities, community colleges, apprenticeship programs, and non-traditional educational offerings such as coding bootcamps, TechHire has recruited over 40 communities to support their efforts.
  • At the beginning of August, the White House hosted its first Demo Day under the theme of inclusive entrepreneurship, showcasing a diverse set of 50 entrepreneurs. The event also highlighted members of the tech community making concrete commitments to improving diversity.
  • Later this year, the Department of Education launched a pilot program to evaluate the effectiveness of non-traditional education providers, such as coding bootcamps. While these new programs offer students valuable skills for well-paying, in-demand jobs, many are un-accredited and therefore disqualify students from using federal funding towards tuition. If successful, the outcomes of the Department’s pilot may help expand access to new learning models for vital technical skills.

Veterans

This year, we saw Washington take interest in how to connect veterans with resources that would aid them in transitioning into the tech industry. In July, Senators Moran and Tester introduced the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Act of 2015. The bill would allow veterans to apply their GI Bill benefits towards starting their own businesses. In August, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) launched a new pilot for accelerated learning programs (e.g. coding bootcamps with certain providers) - at no cost to participants. We look forward to seeing how the results shape the conversation around using GI Bill benefits towards coding bootcamps and alternative tech education.

Immigration

Immigration policy also plays a key role in supporting and growing technology companies and startups, too. Some of our country’s most successful technology firms were founded by immigrants and foreign talent is in high demand among U.S. tech companies, big and small. In 2015, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) received a record number of H-1B visa applications: 233,000 for the 85,000 spots. The H-1B program also came under fire this year for both favoring large companies and outsourcing firms (see Disney’s actions), as well as for abuse.

The H-1B program represents just one set of issues rattling our outdated immigration system, yet, none of these additional challenges saw real solutions from Congress this year. Speaker Paul Ryan made it clear that it’s unlikely any needed legislation will pass until a new president is elected. Nonetheless, a few incremental improvements (that didn’t require congressional approval) were pushed forward. USCIS began accepting work authorization applications so H-4 dependent spouses can work here, too. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering extending the OPT visa program for STEM students. And we soon expect DHS to announce guidelines for improved pathways for foreign entrepreneurs to acquire visas in order to start companies here.

Looking Ahead

While Speaker Ryan’s outlook gives the tech community little optimism for immigration reform in 2016, we hope high-skilled immigration policy will make its way into the presidential candidate agendas. It is likely that progress will be made to support veterans entering tech. The VET Act is gaining support and we expect that it will head to the Senate floor in the first half of the year. We also hope to see legislation introduced that would allow veterans to use their GI Bill benefits towards alternative tech education programs, such as coding bootcamps. On the industry side, we’re optimistic, too. The public pressure and attention on tech firms’ employee diversity that mounted throughout this year has now raised expectations. Companies are keenly aware they need to do better and made promises that we hope to see begin to come to fruition in 2016.