How to Attract, Develop, and Retain Diverse STEM Talent.

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Attracting and maintaining diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) candidates is key to any business’ success. Here’s how to make it easier.

When I began my career 30 years ago as a software engineer, there was a significant gap when it came to diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent in companies across America. As a Black woman, I suppose I satisfied two checkboxes when I got hired. But three decades later, Fortune 1000 companies are still woefully underrepresented with people of color, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. That’s just bad business in an ever-growing, worldwide marketplace. Attracting and maintaining top diverse talent is more crucial than ever to business success. With that in mind, I recently convened a panel of experts who brought insights, best practices, and new models for bridging the STEM talent gap.

Joining me was Liliana Mondo, CEO of SABIO (Coding Bootcamp); SaulPaul, Grammy-nominated musician and founder of Be the Change Network; and Chris Graham, President of Workforce Education Solutions at National University System.

Why close the diversity gap?

I think SaulPaul summed it up nicely when he said, “Closing the diversity gap is critical to meeting future tech needs and incorporating new perspectives of a global customer base. When you have globally diverse customers, you want a workforce that reflects that.”

That’s so true. Not only are diverse STEM professionals more than able to do the job, they bring with them a worldview, background, and thinking that can help businesses large and small succeed in a global marketplace. We all need to walk a mile in our customers’ shoes, and a diverse employee base can help you do that more readily.

Strategies to inspire young people to pursue STEM career options

Part of the challenge these days — COVID aside — is that young professionals have myriad options to choose from. So the earlier we can expose young, diverse individuals to potential STEM careers, the better. Grooming them is a long-term endeavor.

“You don’t just flip a switch and become diverse,” SaulPaul said. “You need to think long-term. It’s important to start grooming people as early as middle school.” He recommended partnering with culturally relevant professionals who are used to working with you people and speak their language.

You need to start early to create a pipeline of diverse talent coming into your company and have a continuous process to help them understand their place in it.

“Approach it like they approach recruiting for football,” SaulPaul said. “The best players are groomed beginning in middle school.” His advice: start early and offer access to internships and mentorships to provide access and exposure.

Liliana Mondo agreed. Her coding bootcamp has helped many, many young people gain exposure and improve their skills. The more programs and practices you can set up to bring diverse professionals in to learn a craft or skill set, the better.

Exposure to options is crucial. “In the Latino community, parents only want you to be a doctor or lawyer,” Mondo said, “because they are the only things they understand will lead to prosperity.”

Incentives are important, too. If you can get college credit for going through a coding bootcamp, all the better. The more that diverse talent can pick up extra skills along the way, the more competitive they will become in the marketplace.

Also, recognize that there isn’t just one path for STEM professionals. Sure, they may be on a traditional path from high school to college into the workplace. But there are so many different onramps. They may start out as teachers or other professionals, add a few skills here and there, and then get on a professional STEM track.

Chris Graham also pointed out that organizations are getting more specialized. They may want proof, for example, that a programming candidate is proficient in Python or Java. At the same time, companies are building upscaling programs themselves to help employees get the skills they need.

Connecting new diverse talent to open STEM opportunities

One of the key ways to attract new diverse STEM talent is to give candidates a way to identify with others like them who have succeeded. When they can speak to someone they identify with, who may understand their views and concerns and speaks their language, it helps give them the vision that they could follow a similar path.

Tech career expos and coding camps can help, and this can be done virtually now, which helps companies expand their search and not be so locked down geographically.

Bringing in C-level executives to talk about their pathway can have a greater impact as well. You also have to communicate the employee support that’s available and emphasize that they would be coming to work in a place that’s safe for them to learn and grow.

Upgrading your skills to pursue new STEM opportunities

Mondo pointed out that there are so many resources out there for skills advancement these days that it can be a double-edged sword. You have to focus on the two or three skills you really need to learn so you don’t get pulled into sixty different tangents. Start with the basics to learn the world of logic — basic HTML, basic CSS, and then Javascript.

CodeAcademy is a great place to start. So is YouTube. Free resources can help you take small bites to determine your skills and interests — or even if you want to make a move to a STEM job.

Increasing STEM skills in an existing workforce

Don’t forget to take advantage of tuition assistance, Graham said. Currently, up to $5250 for continuing education is not recognized as income for tax purposes. That can pay for a coding camp or additional academic courses.

Our panelists’ organizations are also great places and great people to partner with to increase your skills: SABIO offers a coding bootcamp, Be the Change Network offers its Pipeline Stem Program at no charge, and National University offers continuing tech education.

More and more these days there are virtual classes and ways to gain technology skills without taking on financial hardship.

Developing and retaining talent in house

What can corporations do to develop or retain talent once they are in the door?

“Empower to engage, support employee connections, and strengthen through employee leadership, connection, and growth,” SaulPaul said.

Remember, your most important asset already works for you. Make sure they see opportunities for them within the organization. And be flexible.

Graham spoke of the particular challenges that veterans face. “A lot of veterans come in underemployed because companies traditionally haven’t done a great job identifying and translating the skills they learned in the military,” he said. “So now companies are improving pathways and isolating the skills needed internally to help veterans move up to analyst or management roles.”

No matter what, you have to develop a culture of ongoing learning and development.

Key actions to take now to improve your pipeline of diverse STEM talent

Graham said that individuals can work with workforce development and education/training agencies for skills-based training — and many resources are free or low-cost. And organizations can work with currently underemployed team members to foster job advancement by helping identify and bridge skill gaps toward STEM jobs.

Mongo also recommended that if you want to hire nontraditional candidates, you should review your job descriptions to ensure they are open and inclusive. Be careful with your language. Terms like “Rock star” or “Super star” can turn off women applicants.

All of the organizations that participated in our panel can be of help:

The Be the Change Network offers a Pipeline STEM Program to offer early exposure to STEM opportunities, especially for socially disadvantaged communities. Participants are trained to level up their technical skills (coding) and non-technical skills (sales, marketing, business). You can get involved by being a student, sponsoring a student, volunteering to mentor, or having your company participate in virtual STEM career days.

Start your coding journey at Sabio. There are free classes with support.

National University offers flexible continuing technical education as well as tuition assistance.

Founders First works with underserved business leaders to help them get the funding and experience they need to take their business to the next level. Find out if it’s a good fit for you.

You can listen to this webinar in its entirety from our events page.

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