Biden Is Caught Between Big Tech and Black Voters
Biden Is Caught Between Big Tech and Black Voters
President Joseph Biden couldn’t have beaten Donald Trump in 2020 without the support of Big Tech and Black voters. Donations from Silicon Valley employees and political action committees gave the former vice president a critical cash advantage in the final scramble to election day, while Black voter turnout tipped the balance in key states such as Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania. “When this campaign was at its lowest — the African-American community stood up again for me,” Biden said in his acceptance speech. “They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Now, facing a host of intractable domestic and foreign crises, from rising inflation and a persisting pandemic to escalating Russian aggression and Chinese strategic competition, Biden risks seeing his falling poll numbers translate into the loss of the Democratic Party’s tenuous control of Congress.
But rather than rushing to Biden’s aid, Black Americans and Big Tech are pulling back. Although still high, the president’s approval rating among Black voters has fallen precipitously. Before his inauguration, two-thirds of Black Americans said Biden’s policies would favor their interests. More than a year later, the largest proportion of respondents felt his agenda had no impact on their lives. “I feel like Biden is basically doing the bare minimum in terms of being attentive to the needs and issues facing the Black community,” one prominent civil rights advocate told the Hill.
Big Tech, for its part, has faced growing scrutiny and pressure from the industry critics that Biden has named to prominent roles in his administration. The president’s progressive agenda, from retaining trade barriers to raising corporate tax rates, also came as a disappointment to executives seeking a centrist foil to Trump. And while rolling back some Trump-era restrictions has made it easier to hire the foreign students Silicon Valley covets — as well as programmers and engineers on temporary visas — companies highly reliant on this skilled workforce continue to voice frustration about labor shortages, warning that a dearth of candidates could force them to ship jobs overseas.
Efforts by the Biden administration to woo back these two critical constituencies face a growing problem: Although their respective interests have little direct overlap, they increasingly conflict in a key area — the hunt for tech talent. Prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus want more high-paying tech jobs to go to graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other underrepresented minorities; tech wants more workers, period.
Theoretically, these two goals can coexist. Tech companies often say there’s no limit to the number of engineers they can hire. But the data say otherwise: Over the past thirty years, a rising flow of visa holders has created a pool of tens of thousands of candidates beyond the available openings; meanwhile, in the decade through 2020, the representation of Black workers in tech has stagnated.
For the US to remain a “talent powerhouse,” it shouldn’t have to make a choice between a domestic or foreign-born pipeline, as the National Science Board has noted. It needs both. Yet companies’ growing dependency on temporary workers is having a profound if unintended consequence on diversity hiring. There’s little incentive to recruit when a long line of candidates is waiting at the doorstep. “Why not invest as much time, effort, money and resources into developing overlooked, underserved home-grown talent as you are to lobbying for an increase in the number of H-1B visas?” asked Allison Scott, the CEO of the Kapor Center and co-author of a recent joint report with the NAACP lamenting the state of tech diversity. “We don’t want to close our doors to fantastic international talent, but we can’t import our way out of our tech talent shortage, and our rampant inequality, if we want to remain competitive.”
That tech, one of the highest-paid sectors, is unrepresentative of the country at large poses a crisis not only of wealth and income inequality, staggering as that may be. It also means the people developing technology don’t look like the people who use it. Powerful algorithms, for example, help determine who gets a job, a home loan, access to health care — or even a speeding ticket. In other words, the systemic exclusion facing Silicon Valley aspirants has the potential to affect every Black and Brown person in America. “The people whose hands are making those products that so increasingly govern our lives, our personal lives, our professional lives, the lives of citizens, are not actually made by diverse hands,” said Lisa Lewin, chief executive officer of General Assembly, a large provider of coding bootcamps. “That, to me, is hugely problematic.”
Traditionally, tech companies seeking to fill richly compensated, entry-level openings culled the most promising recruits from a clutch of elite campuses; for less glamorous but well-enough paid IT work, they resorted to a much broader pool from lower-tier schools. HBCUs, community colleges and other minority-serving institutions have been ignored at both ends. As a result, many Black computer science and engineering graduates have ended up working everywhere but Silicon Valley, the lucrative epicenter of tech innovation — even as industry giants there say they can’t find any Black workers to hire.
“Technology firms have explained away their poor workforce diversity performance by claiming it is simply a pipeline problem,” Representative Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor wrote in an email. “Tech firms’ overreliance on H-1B visas would not be necessary if they actually hired domestic talent from underrepresented groups.”
Although the lack of diversity in Big Tech has long frustrated members of the Black community, many have been unwilling to let what seems like an immigration policy issue drive a wedge between minority populations in a zero-sum competition for jobs. But fixing some of the deepest flaws in the US system for recruiting skilled visa holders would protect the wages of Americans and guest workers alike. Ultimately, prioritizing labor reform could further the long-term diversity goals of Black legislators and activists.
To their credit, tech companies now see that hiring more minorities is both right and necessary. Many have made donations to HBCUs, widened their recruiting networks and sent their employees to campuses as ambassadors, lecturers and guest professors. Until Big Tech is willing to overhaul its hiring practices, though, none of that good work will stick. Solutions focused on increasing the number of qualified Black graduates will be ineffective in isolation. Supply doesn’t create demand.
The goals of the Black community to get more workers into Silicon Valley and the demands of the technology industry to hire the best people are complementary, and critical for a dynamic and inclusive US economy. If Biden truly wants to fulfill his campaign promise to Black voters to have their backs, he must hold Big Tech accountable for reaching the lofty goals that it increasingly espouses.
Is There a Pipeline Problem?
The potential hiring pool among Black candidates is deeper than their representation in Silicon Valley. Black graduates earn 7.7% of degrees in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and despite making up 7.5% of tech workers nationally, comprise just 1.4% of those in the San Jose metro area, according to the latest data available.
The link between diversity and Big Tech’s visa dependence hasn’t gone unnoticed in Washington. In 2019, the Labor Department added claims to an existing lawsuit against Oracle America Inc., alleging the company showed “extreme preference” for hiring Asian students, and favored visa-holding ones, at its former headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif. “In several years, Oracle hired zero Black or Hispanic recent college and university graduates,” according to an amended complaint. The result was a hiring pattern out of sync with the potential candidate pool, leading to the refusal to hire more than 100 qualified, non-Asian applicants, it said. The DOL settled its college recruitment claims in 2019 after Oracle, having denied the accusations, pledged to diversify its campus hiring strategy.
Oracle isn’t alone. In 2020, the Justice Department sued Facebook Inc., now Meta Platforms Inc., for refusing to recruit, consider or hire US workers for more than 2,600 positions that offered an average salary of about $156,000. The DOJ alleged that, rather than conducting a genuine search for qualified US workers, the company reserved roles for temporary visa holders by failing to advertise openings on its career site, requiring applications be submitted by mail only, or refusing to consider US workers who applied. After a nearly two-year investigation, the department concluded that Facebook received zero or one US applicants for 99.7% of positions aimed at guest workers, while comparable openings typically received 100 or more applicants. The company agreed to pay up to $14.3 million in separate settlement agreements with the Justice and Labor Departments last October. (To put that amount in perspective: Meta earned roughly $83 million a day in the most recent quarter.) Facebook said that it believes it met the government’s standards for labor certification practices.
Sadly, these outcomes are decades in the making. In a May 2000 congressional hearing on the impact of H-1B visas on American workers, John W. Templeton, author of an annual report called “Silicon Ceiling: Equal Opportunity in High Technology,” said: “We started to look at the issue of fair employment in high technology, and it did not take us long to intersect with the H-1B.” One employer reportedly explained the lack of hiring from HBCUs and black professional organizations as a matter of convenience: “The H-1B is easier, I need the body count,” according to Templeton’s recounting.
This backdrop is a reminder that the diversity equation in tech is different than in other sectors. Although a steady flow of international hires might seem to check the right boxes, 64% of H-1B petitions approved in the 2021 fiscal year were filed on behalf of Indian or Chinese men. “Many [foreign-born workers] are counted as underrepresented minorities [to] help fill open gaps in the STEM workforce but do not serve to increase domestic ‘minority’ representation in STEM,” according to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report from 2019.
That’s why hiring minorities isn’t enough – companies must be compelled to find underrepresented minorities.
Is There a Recruiting Problem?
Despite putting more resources toward recruiting, Big Tech’s diversity metrics remain disappointing. Black workers represent just 3.5% of Google’s tech employee¬s compared with 1.5% in 2014, when the company first made such information public. At Meta, that figure rose to 2.1% from 1%. The number was roughly flat at Cisco Systems Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. over a similar time period, at about 3% and less than 2%, respectively.
As the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission observed in 2016, persistent underrepresentation presents two unlikely scenarios: Either Big Tech is unable to attract a significant portion of minority candidates from top schools, or those graduates do not qualify for the jobs they were educated to do.
In 2014, Google launched a project with Howard University to improve its computer science curriculum and proposed sending the company’s engineers to teach an introductory course. The Washington Post reported last year that Google was taken aback by the lack of preparedness among CS students at HBCUs: They “struggle with the most basic of coding, algorithms and data structures,” according to one internal document. “With this huge percentage of the pool currently not hireable, we need to look at ways to impact change in the HBCU system,” it said.
CodePath.org, which offers coding boot camps for underrepresented minorities, faced similar challenges more recently. The company wanted to offer an Android course at Morehouse College, a prominent all-male HBCU. But the class had a prerequisite of exposure to Java, a popular programming language. Too few students qualified, so CodePath could not run the course, according to founder and CEO Michael Ellison. (CodePath’s funders include Bloomberg LP.)
But HBCUs aren’t the only institutions facing claims that their students aren’t ready. Some employers say that the CS curricula at prestigious engineering schools are too theoretical. “Even Stanford, even Berkeley, or one of these top schools, you can graduate without knowing how to build a web application or an iPhone app… you can’t walk on the job,” Ellison says.
Does that mean US universities are failing their students? (And, if so, why are tech companies lobbying to hire more foreign graduates from those very schools?) Or have employers’ expectations simply become unrealistic?
“[Companies are] pointing to the problem of students,” said Nicki Washington, a CS professor at Duke University, who previously taught at Howard and was involved in Google’s program there. “It’s not a graduate problem, it’s a them problem. But it’s very easy to put it on the people who are the most marginalized.” (Washington also said she’s confident her Howard students could go toe-to-toe with any of her Duke ones.)
Felesia Stukes, an assistant professor of data science at Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in North Carolina, says her students are “definitely prepared” for the workforce. Yet they still struggle to land internships, a critical gateway for the hands-on experience employers want. So while virtual recruitment increased noticeably last fall, that hasn’t necessarily yielded more job offers.
Stukes explained that it’s impossible to prepare students to be proficient in every programming language that might be called upon in an interview. She also argues that critical thinking skills should be more important, and that the qualifications demanded by tech companies aren’t always entry level. Some of the required skills are typically taught at the master’s level, she observed.
Indeed, it is increasingly rare for a new hire to walk onto the job cold. Given the specificity of network configurations, a generic computer science graduate could take a year to ramp up, according to a senior engineering director at a major California-based IT company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of violating company policy. As a result, companies like his start developing a pool of workers in India at a fraction of the cost, often hiring from other tech companies or contractors. They arrive in the US as H-1Bs.
Diversity has suffered as a result. The director, who manages a 40-person team, has flagged to his bosses that about 98% of candidates he sees are male and Asian, according to email exchanges seen by Bloomberg Opinion. Finding Black, Hispanic, female and other underrepresented minority candidates takes time, he wrote, but hiring managers are under enormous pressure to close job requisitions quickly. In another exchange, he urged the company to consider hiring outside main hubs, which include San Jose and Bangalore, to expand the candidate pool. His boss brushed off his concern and emphasized the need to hire where employees will be “most productive.”
Some companies do offer engineering boot camps and other onboarding programs. Yet employers looking at quarterly operational and hiring targets often lack the time and money to develop talent. As Ellison puts it, that leaves many hiring managers asking: “Should I try to build this [training program] that I don’t know how to build that’s going to take a couple of years until I see [return on investment], or am I going to pay a sea of recruiters who just throw candidates over the fence so that I can hit my hiring targets?”
Why Are HBCUs So Important?
HBCUs produce a declining but still significant share of Black computer science bachelor’s degrees. In the decade through 2018, HBCUs produced, on average, 14% of CS diplomas earned and 18% of all science and engineering majors in this demographic. (In 2020, according to the Kapor-NAACP study, HBCUs graduated 10% of the 8,120 Black computer science majors.) Overlooking these schools could mean Big Tech recruiters have potentially missed out on thousands of qualified candidates.
“These are the same companies that purport to be so concerned about increasing representation,” said Duke’s Washington, adding that there are more than 100 HBCUs, many with computer science departments. “How are you telling me that you can’t find Black graduates when they’re right there?”
Google, for example, once used a college ranking system that identified HBCUs as “long tail” — a significant amount of time would be needed before such schools could produce a large number of qualified graduates — compared with “elite” schools like Stanford University or “tier 1” and “tier 2” state schools and institutions that award thousands of engineering degrees each year, the Washington Post reported. The company agreed to drop this rubric as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, and after a dozen of its own college recruiters objected, according to the paper.
Partly thanks to the rapid investment in HBCUs during the 1970s and 1980s, Black college graduates became more likely than the US average to hold a computer science degree. As a percentage of all degrees earned by race, Black graduates in the field have outpaced White ones over the past two decades, according to data compiled by Victoria Coty, a research associate at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations.
Support among Black families for the pursuit of computer science is also strong. A Gallup study showed that 52% of Black parents consider the field “very important” for their children, compared with just 32% for Whites. And yet, attrition is high: The proportion of Black students who intend to major in CS when starting school but switch majors or drop out of school is greater than for any other race or ethnic group, according to the Kapor Center report.
Ultimately, some discouraged students seek lower-paid work with better hiring odds. “Even in the short time that I have been faculty, I have seen the turnaround in students who start out doubting that they would actually get paid $80,000 a year,” said Stukes. “They were like, if I can just get $45,000 I’d be happy. And I’m like, no you won’t, you won’t be happy. Do not do that — trust me.”
Where Are Black CS Majors Going?
Given the barriers, it’s little surprise that few Black CS graduates end up in Silicon Valley. Rather, they take jobs in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, often trickling into government employers. But even the most prestigious jobs at the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency don’t offer Big Tech salaries, a prospect that only widens the pay gap with White counterparts.
The outcome is what William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO, calls the hyper-segregation of the IT labor market. Black workers are much better represented in tech in and around Washington, for example, than in the Bay Area and Seattle. If a shortage of IT talent truly existed, he says, employment would be more evenly distributed and wages would be rising.
“Silicon Valley has been aided by government policies that have favored using foreign workers on temporary visas rather than a national policy aimed at investing in the skills of Americans,” Spriggs wrote in a chapter he shared with me, noting that H-1B approvals climbed during the global financial crisis, just as Black IT workers, among others, were suffering job losses. “Clearly, with so many displaced among computer programmers, there was no scarcity of talent to be found.”
Can Reforms Lead to More and Better Jobs?
The Labor Department has some cards to play when it comes to protecting workplace diversity. Many of the biggest H-1B employers are federal contractors, required to prepare and maintain affirmative action plans for each location they operate, including factories, stores and offices.
Yet almost 85% of contractor establishments selected for compliance evaluations didn’t submit an affirmative action plan within the requested time frame, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the Labor Department division responsible for this aspect of contractor oversight, “had no process” to ensure tens of thousands of establishments develop and update their affirmative action plans properly. In response, the OFCCP created an electronic portal, requiring contractors to register and annually certify that they are doing so in compliance with the agency’s guidelines. (Use of the portal became compulsory in March; existing contractors have until June to certify.)
Digitizing some of the paper-shuffling is a welcome step, but won’t address the root of the problem — which is that the OFCCP’s process for resolving noncompliance is convoluted and ineffectual. Most violations end in conciliation agreements that outline remedial actions, hardly a deterrent for deep-pocketed political operators such as the tech industry.
Thus, the Labor Department not only has limited authority to champion diversity, but also exercises what little power it does have too sparingly. Congress can, and must, do more. “Diversity and inclusion must not be treated as an aspiration; it is the law,” as Representative Scott wrote in an email.
A more effective stick for noncompliance with diversity requirements would be suspending or revoking an employer’s privilege to sponsor visas. But proposed fixes to the H-1B visa program, such as preventing companies from giving preference to visa holders, might be a more realistic starting point. This is an important objective of a bill reintroduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley in March. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, meanwhile, has included among its recommendations for executive action a proposal to increase H-1B wage requirements to reflect “true market rates” and prioritize employers “seeking highly skilled workers and paying fair wages.” The Biden administration appears to be on board — and given the degree of congressional paralysis, some argue executive action would be the most expedient route to meaningful reform.
On the other side of the ledger are efforts that would bring more underrepresented minorities into tech, such as increased funding for computer science and engineering education at HBCUs, minority-serving institutions and community colleges. (In 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, which will fund 100 students from HBCUs to receive doctorate degrees in STEM at Johns Hopkins University every year.) These will take time to show results, but success is quantifiable. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a cohort that encourages STEM graduate study among minorities, has an impressive track record.
The key is putting these two pieces together. One way to do that would be to create internships for underrepresented minorities in equal proportion to the number of guest workers hired, or provide tax incentives for companies that balance their hiring, according to Larry King, publisher of STEM News Chronicle, a newsletter that supports STEM diversity. Another option would be requiring companies to include visa holders in their diversity reports.
Black voters have leverage here, if they’re willing to use it. Some key leaders are frustrated by the flaws of the H-1B visa, says Spriggs of AFL-CIO, but they continue to bump up against a tech lobby that’s too powerful. Moreover, the Black Caucus, once energized by an ambitious agenda that included voting rights and police reform, has resigned itself to smaller, more practical goals.
The tech lobby understands that very little will be accomplished legislatively in the current Congress, and appears to be waiting for a better candidate to emerge as their champion of immigration reform. In the meantime, the industry has seized on the Great Resignation narrative, pointing to the exceedingly low unemployment rate in computer occupations and surveys showing hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs as proof of debilitating shortages. Bipartisan anxiety about China’s rising competitiveness also plays to their advantage: The US is falling behind and the domestic labor force is tapped out, the argument goes. But that view is predicated on the idea that every single qualified candidate who wants a job in tech has one. You don’t have to probe the data too deeply to determine that simply isn’t the case.
The Biden administration has choices: It could hold tech companies accountable on their diversity promises or double down on the sector’s demands and vastly expand access to skilled worker visas. So far, it’s doing neither, and stands to erode the patience of two constituencies whose political support it badly needs.
Advocates of the H-1B visa often say that the world’s best and brightest deserve a shot at the American Dream. That’s absolutely true. But the absence of a requirement to recruit domestically means that underrepresented Americans are missing out on that same promise. Can the US afford to have one of its most vibrant economic sectors so poorly reflect the country at large? After years of being overlooked, unheard and misjudged, many of the Black graduates who do make it to Silicon Valley are increasingly finding good reason to leave. Ensuring a better future for these students may be Joe Biden’s particular debt to pay, but Big Tech and the US at large will bear the true cost of failure.