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New initiative aims to diversify tech talent

Allison Miller

The Innovation Institute, an economic development agency housed within the larger quasi-governmental organization the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, has just launched an initiative aimed at increasing diversity in local tech industries.

Named the “Tech Talent Diversity Initiative,” the program is an effort to increase diversity in tech by providing grants to civic organizations, businesses or non-profits for projects that increase the number of underrepresented populations in the technology workforce.

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In a press release, leaders of the Tech Talent Diversity Initiative described the purpose of the program.

“Our hope is to fund initiatives that expand the ways diverse applicants can enter the high-tech workforce and create new pathways for workers to thrive in their position,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy.

“We’re looking for one or several organizations that can tackle this critical challenge, to get candidates into jobs, but also ensure that they have the training, mentorship, and employer support to stay in the sector long-term,” said Carolyn Kirk, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

The Tech Talent Diversity Initiative press release indicated that although Massachusetts has one of the strongest tech economies in the country, the employment of groups like women and people of color is significantly lower than others.

“In 2017, women held 49 percent of the total jobs in Massachusetts, but only 28 percent of computer, engineering, and science jobs,” said Damon Cox, assistant secretary of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship for the commonwealth. “When we look across gender and race stats, we see great opportunity to improve diversity in tech.”

Pat Larkin, director of The Innovation Institute, said that diversity was “the definition of innovation.” He spoke with the Banner about the benefits of diversity to the tech industry specifically.

“It’s about new ideas. New thinking. Creativity. When you’re operating in a homogenous environment, you by definition have constrained your growth,” said Larkin. “We need to open up the aperture and invite everybody to the table.”

The Tech Talent Diversity Initiative wants ultimately to increase the number of women and people of color in tech through hiring underrepresented individuals for entry-level jobs, as well as for internships and apprenticeships. But first they need to select which programs will do this best, by reading proposals by groups who have a plan for how to do so.

“We want creative ideas to percolate up from individuals in organizations who have ideas on how they move the needle to increase participation rates,” said Larkin. “We will receive proposals from people at these groups, and then make an investment in a way that establishes partnerships, creates links within the state.”

A question-and-answer session for proposals will be held on May 23. Registration is available online. The deadline for open project proposals is June 28.

The Tech Talent Diversity Initiative follows other tech employment programs recently begun by the state, such as partnerships with apprenticeship programs like Apprenti. Apprenti Massachusetts, a program of the WTIA Workforce Institute, was launched in Massachusetts this year with funding from the One8 Foundation and in partnership with the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. Apprenti places apprentices at employers for one year of on-the-job training after they complete technical training. 

Especially relevant here, Apprenti recruits participants regardless of educational background.

In an interview, Lauren Jones, director of Apprenti Massachusetts, spoke about who and how Apprenti helps through its offering of paid apprenticeships.

“In addition to increasing a diverse tech talent pipeline, the model really tells a story of economic mobility, especially for people of color, women, and veterans,” said Jones. “As we continue to grow in Boston and across the commonwealth, I look forward to success stories among apprentices, locally.”

As the only apprenticeship program serving IT jobs in Massachusetts, Jones said she saw Apprenti Massachusetts as a strong example of an innovative solution for increasing diversity in tech.

“As the tech industry continues to grow in Massachusetts and across the country, it is important for companies to also grow in their diversity and inclusion practices,” said Jones. “We need more diversity and inclusion in tech, and we want to build a diverse applicant pool for our hiring partners ready to welcome more people of color, women, and veterans in IT-related roles.”