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 August 2005

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in my opinion

The Technology Dream Deferred

by John William Templeton

Imagine going into low-income neighborhoods across the nation and creating one million new high-tech jobs for people who had never even seen computers before. The widely respected Hudson Institute called for just such an ambitious jobs creation initiative in its Workforce 2000 report, published in 1987.

Nearly 20 years later, much of the nation is mired in a prolonged jobless recovery. Many of the new jobs that are being created are located in India, China and other lower cost, overseas locations. For far too many Americans, the dream of economic prosperity that comes with growing numbers of high-skilled, high-wage jobs has been postponed or abandoned. The African-American community has been particularly hard hit. New business opportunities for people like John Henry Thompson, the Harlem native who created Lingo, the scripting language that powered the Internet in the 1980s, and Philip Emeagwali, a 1989 IEEE Gordon Bell Prize winner, seem few and far between.

The nation’s increasing reliance on “temporary” guest-worker programs coupled with offshore outsourcing have further reduced job opportunities for African-American technology workers. Kevin Hinkston, a Howard University graduate and a former Hewlett Packard engineer who grew up in Oakland, reports that high-tech employers are no longer recruiting graduates from historically black colleges and universities the way they used to. Today, Hinkston is a real estate developer.

Natasha Humphries, a Stanford University software engineering graduate who worked for 10 years in quality assurance before her job was outsourced to India, is currently employed in media sales.

Reliable statistics suggest that blacks continue to be significantly under- represented in high-tech fields. A recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, for example, indicates that only 211,000 (5.5 percent) of the 3.8 million Americans who work for high-tech employers are African-Americans. Among the 12 major industry sectors surveyed by the BLS, the high-tech sector ranks tenth in terms of the percentage of African Americans it employs, ahead of only mining and agriculture.

The percentage of blacks employed in other information-based, technology driven industries belies the prejudicial notion that African-Americans are simply not qualified for jobs in the high-tech sector. Blacks make up 15.4 percent of all workers employed in the radio/television/cable media cluster and 13.9 percent of all telecommunications workers.

In the high-tech sector itself, the highest percentage of African-Americans work in computer systems design, where 115,000 blacks account for seven percent of the 1.6 million member workforce. In science and technology management and consulting occupations, 58,000 blacks account for 5.6 percent of the 1.03 million member workforce.

Although there are more black high-tech workers in information technology departments at IT-using companies than at IT-producing companies, the escalating rate at which business processing jobs in accounting, finance, information and health care are being exported to other countries poses a growing threat to indigenous African-American employment at those companies as well.

In an effort to uncover possible bias and prejudicial behavior in high-tech company hiring practices, the Coalition for Fair Employment in Silicon (CFESV) initiated a series of innovative research projects in the San Francisco Bay Area beginning in 1998. In its first annual Silicon Ceiling report, published in 1999, CFESV confirmed earlier findings by the San Francisco Chronicle that blacks accounted for only 3.7 percent of all employees at Bay Area high-tech companies. At the time of the report, African-American employment at high-tech companies nationally stood at 7.1 percent.

Two years later, CFESV targeted Bay Area employers who claimed that they had been unable to find qualified Americans to fill vacant high-tech positions. Using H-1B visa application data submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor to identify employers with job vacancies, CFESV sent the resumes of qualified African-American candidates to local companies that had petitioned for authorization to hire foreign workers. None of the companies even acknowledged having received the resumes.

In Silicon Ceiling III, CFESV reported that employment among African-American engineers and computer specialists in Pacific and Southwestern states had declined by 20 percent in 2001 — the year after Congress raised the annual cap on H-1B visas from 115,000 to 195,000.

The only bright spot for African-American techies in recent years has been the growth of black-owned high-technology companies, which numbered 2,300 in 2003. These firms employ more than 15,000 workers and report average revenues that are six times higher than revenues earned by African-American businesses in general.

Economic globalization, and with it the growing dependence of many U.S. employers on part-time and temporary workers — including temporary foreign workers — and attendant increases in the transfer of high-wage, high-technology jobs to lower cost offshore locations, is having an adverse impact on the employment and economic security of too many Americans. African Americans, especially those in central cities and rural communities, have been particularly hard hit. Flat or declining employment opportunities invariably result in flat or declining income and business tax receipts, and flat or declining investments in essential infrastructure, including public education, health care, social services and transportation.

 

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John Templeton lives and works in San Francisco. He is a co-convener of the Coalition for Fair Employment in high-technology, in Silicon Valley, California. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org. Opinions expressed are the author's.


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