Big tech doesn’t require four-year college degrees. Other companies should take the hint
April 1, 2022Updated: April 1, 2022 2:32 p.m.
There have long been systematic barriers to Black Americans securing well-paying jobs and constructing a Black middle class. While there are some promising ideas on how to address this persistent and worsening issue, many of the ideas require significant social, political and financial capital to implement. But there is one solution that can happen right now without a heavy lift: Companies should remove the four-year degree requirement for most software development and other technology positions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 28% of African Americans have college degrees. And, only 8% of computer science bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2020 were earned by Black students. Add to this the rising cost of higher education, and it becomes unlikely there will be a sharp increase in Black computer science graduates anytime soon.
That lack of a college degree is a massive barrier to building Black wealth. Technology jobs are some the highest paying and most stable jobs in the U.S. economy, with a projection of 189,200 job openings in the next 10 years for software developers, quality assurance analysts and testers. But most of these jobs are with non-tech companies, and according to the U.S. Bureau on Labor and Statistics, all of the roles typically require a four-year degree.
For years, big tech companies like Google and Apple have not required bachelor degrees for technology roles within their own ranks, opting instead to expand their employee searches by focusing on hands-on experience over educational pedigree. While they still hire individuals with college degrees, these tech giants also tap into talent from coding boot camps or alternative computer science programs. Non-tech companies should follow their lead.
As the executive director of a technology education nonprofit that mentors underrepresented youth and adults in Memphis, I have witnessed firsthand how the four-year degree is not necessary to obtain the skills needed to be effective in many technology roles.
Students come to our boot camp often with little to no background in coding, but they leave as capable and effective software engineers. Without being saddled with requirements to take unrelated coursework, our students can dedicate more hours to computer science instruction than they would at universities. They also receive soft skills training to make them effective communicators and problem solvers.
After completing our adult training program, our graduates are able to secure software engineering jobs earning, on average, $55,000. For the average graduate, who enters our program with an income of $15,000, the salary increase, along with the benefits and job stability that such a role provides, is life changing. In Memphis, an annual salary of $55,000 launches our overwhelmingly Black and Latino graduates straight into the middle class.
To be sure, boot camps have their own issues. Not every boot camp provides a high quality education.
Nationally, boot camps also suffer from a lack of diversity. According to a recent report from the Kapor Center and the NAACP, only 6% of coding boot campers are Black. But if non-tech companies begin actively seeking employees from these settings, boot camps will be motivated to increase their quality of instruction to attract more students, and increasing their records of successful job placement will only further attract Black participation in them.
According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute last year, approximately 6.7 million Black workers, or 42% of the Black labor force, are currently working in industries that will likely face significant disruption by 2030. Increasing automation, new business models and post-pandemic changes will likely lead to a drop in demand for what are now essential lower-wage jobs — occupations that have significant numbers of Black workers today. These individuals will need to be retrained to develop the skills in order to successfully navigate the economy that’s coming, and it is unlikely many will choose the debt-inducing path of pursuing a four-year degree.
By dropping degree requirements, companies will not only be helping to eliminate the estimated $220 billion annual disparity between what Black wages are today and what they would be if systemic racism and inequality were not at play, but these companies will also helping the entire economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, the racial wealth gap between white and Black Americans is projected to cost the U.S. economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in lost consumption and investment from 2019 to 2028.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, U.S. companies pledged an estimated $50 billion toward racial equity, but since then, only $250 million has been spent or tagged to specific initiatives, one study said.
Researchers have said tracking the various pledges is all but impossible. While these companies need to be held accountable for the promises they made, they can also show their commitment to racial equality be removing unnecessary barriers to employment.
Fortunately, a growing number of companies, both technology-related and not, are getting rid of the college degree requirement. But to build Black wealth and to boost our economy, not requiring a college degree for most technology roles needs to be the norm.
Meka Egwuekwe is executive director of CodeCrew, a nonprofit that empowers youth and adults in Memphis from underrepresented communities to be tech innovators.
Check out the San Francisco Chronicle's article here