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January 12, 2024

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, lift others to lift yourself

Senior business execs can play an active role on this national day of service: grow future business and technology leaders by investing in underrepresented communities of talent.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US, volunteers across the country will assemble care packages for those in need, clean up parks and help those who are food insecure. Senior business leaders, though, are in a position to take on an equally important challenge on this national day of service: grow future business and technology leaders by investing in diverse and underrepresented communities of talent.

Amid the increasing need for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent, too many young people lack access to not only four-year college STEM programs that lead to high-paying jobs but also the mentoring and guidance to move up the career ladder. This seemingly intractable challenge affects both the talent pools that business leaders rely on and the communities in which they live.

Business execs can use their role to invest in this source of talent and lift people up to achieve possibilities that have yet to be realized. By doing so, they will create lasting change for both underserved communities and the business itself by creating new and diverse pipelines of future tech leaders.

The STEM gap

It’s no secret that STEM occupations are on the rise. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are projected to grow 8% by 2029, compared with 3.7% for all other occupations.

The good news is the percent of underrepresented minorities in STEM jobs is also growing. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), underrepresented minorities—including Hispanic, Black and American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) populations—collectively represented 24% of the STEM workforce in 2021, up from 18% in 2011.

However, there is still a gap in the STEM opportunities available to these demographics. The NSF report also notes that underrepresented minorities make up one-third of the workforce in STEM jobs that typically do not require a college degree for entry. Those jobs tend to have the lowest salaries and highest unemployment in STEM.

Further, Black, Hispanic and AIAN STEM workers earn less than their white and Asian counterparts. And a Harvard University study found C-suites in Corporate America are still disproportionately white and male, with severe under-representation of women, Black and Hispanic/Latino executives in most C-suite positions. The report noted that the lack of equity at the top isn’t due to a pipeline problem. The US workforce is diverse, with 37% being Asian, Black and Latino. Yet a lack of equity in assessing, developing and promoting talent is undermining representation at the C-suite level.

With the current dynamics, a key source of talent is being missed, as are the creativity, innovation, skills and ideas that come with diverse talent. At an ethical and social level, it’s inequitable to deprive a large portion of the workforce of upwardly mobile career opportunities.

Investing in new sources of talent

Much of the challenge starts with attaining a college degree, itself. Even when underrepresented minority students can get into and pay for a four-year college program, many struggle to connect with the typical college environment. Because many colleges and universities don’t recognize or serve the unique needs of first-generation or underrepresented students, some students end up with low confidence, little sense of community and a lack of support.

For a variety of reasons, college completion rates remain much lower for Black, Hispanic and AIAN students than for white students, according to National Student Clearinghouse’s DEI Data Lab. Even if they do finish, many of the opportunities available to these students offer average salaries not far above minimum wage.

It’s clear that innovative approaches and investments are needed to make a STEM career accessible to people in underrepresented communities. One organization that is succeeding in this endeavor is The Marcy Lab School in New York, which offers recent high school graduates a no-cost, year-long, full-time fellowship in software engineering. The program combines a liberal arts curriculum with rigorous hands-on training that serves as a pathway to a high-paying career in technology.

In addition to the coursework, students are taught the critical thinking skills, professional fluency, resilience and leadership behaviors needed to thrive in the evolving tech sector. Students are also supported through coaching, mentoring and developing the network they need to launch a successful career. According to Marcy Labs, last year’s class—with just one year of intensive learning—landed software engineering jobs with an average wage of $106,000.

The role of senior leaders

Business execs have the opportunity to support—and even start—innovative efforts to grow the talent pipeline by increasing access to lucrative STEM careers. Here are three actions business leaders can take:

  • Provide exposure early and often to corporate spaces and leaders. Interacting with the business community is vital for young professionals’ career trajectory. At Cognizant, our Black, Latinx and Indigenous Group (BLING) sponsored a meeting with Marcy Labs and senior leaders, including our CEO and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, at our New York City office. At the event, students had the opportunity to network, hear career advice, practice their interview skills and get exposure to a corporate environment.

    One of the young women who joined us had been studying bio-medical engineering in college before enrolling at Marcy Labs. She shared her story of becoming discouraged as the only person who looked like her in the college program. We wanted her and the other Marcy fellows to know they have a place at all levels of an organization, including the boardroom, right next to the CEO and executive leadership.
  • Invest in innovative STEM programming. Philanthropic investments are the fuel for alternative programs that work for diverse, underrepresented students. Since 2018, within North America, Australia and Europe alone, Cognizant has awarded approximately $65 million to support numerous organizations working to inspire, educate and prepare communities and people of all ages to succeed in the workforce of today and tomorrow.

  • Include underrepresented minorities in reskilling initiatives. Many tech companies today offer reskilling programs to people inside and outside their company, especially with the fast uptake of generative AI. But it’s essential to take active measures to open these opportunities to all. Our recently announced reskilling initiative, Synapse, is aimed at empowering more than one million individuals with cutting-edge technology skills, including generative AI. Together with governments, academic institutions, businesses and other strategic partners, the program will incorporate skills accelerators, apprenticeships, community education and other approaches to prepare the future workforce.

    By reaching underserved communities, marginalized groups and individuals with limited access to traditional education, the initiative was created with the goal of driving meaningful change and creating pathways to success that were previously unreachable for many individuals. High-scoring participants will be shortlisted for a specialized "train-to-hire" program or interview with us or a Synapse partner for a job opportunity.

One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous quotes is, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” By investing in diverse and underrepresented talent, however, senior leaders aren’t just helping the community—they’re also helping the business and themselves.

To learn more, visit Cognizant’s new skilling program 
Synapse, or contact us.

Ingrid Bradley

HR Talent Acquisition Partner

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Ingrid Bradley co-leads Cognizant’s Black, Latinx & Indigenous Affinity Group. She is passionate about D&I, and her efforts help foster a more inclusive workforce, as well as a sense of belonging at Cognizant.

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