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Op-Ed: I Broke Barriers as Black Woman in Tech Without a Degree. Hire More Workers Like Me

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  • CEOs from 37 of the largest companies including Cisco, General Motors, HP, IBM and Walmart recently joined a new initiative called OneTen to hired one million Black workers over the next decade.
  • A recent analysis found that 70 million-plus workers are systematically overlooked by America's employers due to race and educational hurdles.
  • Child computer prodigy LaShana Lewis, who struggled for decades to land a job in tech because she lacked a degree, writes that it is time for more stories like hers to become career successes.

I am among the few Americans working in an "in-demand" tech job who doesn't have a college degree. But my path to secure a job that matched my skill set was filled with one disappointment after another. 

For nearly two decades, I was one of the 100 million workers without a four-year degree who are overlooked by our nation's employers because of the color of our skin, and the skills we are perceived to lack. As the global economy is thrown into chaos by the Covid-19 pandemic, Black workers without a college degree like me have been the most likely to see our lives disrupted, and if history is any guide, we will be the most at-risk of securing jobs once the economy begins to recover.

I have loved computers my whole life. By 10 years old, I was pulling apart and reassembling a Commodore 64. In high school, my guidance counselor advocated for me to join a new computer programming class (which back then was reserved for boys, shockingly enough), and I quickly became a tutor to the other students. My dreams and aptitude took me to college, but due to personal and financial hardship, I had to leave a few credits short of a degree. 

Even so, my mentors and professors were confident I could secure an entry-level job: I had mastered several programming languages and should've easily found work as an entry-level programmer or a field representative fixing computers. I pored over classified ads and applied for hundreds of computer-related jobs, but never got an interview. I knew I had the skills, and recruiters agreed, but it didn't seem to matter. One recruiter literally told me that even though I was able to do the work, I couldn't be hired because I did not have a degree. 

Covid's millions of unemployed, overlooked workers

For too long I was one of the 70+ million workers who are being systematically overlooked by America's employers, as described in a recent analysis by Opportunity@Work and Accenture. Roughly 30 million of these individuals, who are skilled through alternative routes (often referred to as STARs), already possess the skills for significantly higher-wage work but have never been given the chance to pursue those careers. 

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, millions of STARs are now unemployed, subject to the "first out, last in" problem that plagues the American workforce. Troublingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them are Black, and therefore susceptible to the "lethal preconditions" of racism and economic inequality that have made them even more vulnerable to the economic aftershocks of the pandemic. In fact, new data indicate that the majority of Black workers are STARs, but even though six million of them have the skills to succeed in higher-wage jobs, they are dramatically less likely to transition into those jobs than their white colleagues.

It does not have to be this way. 

Business leaders must find ways to bring more STARs into their talent pipeline. Based on the skills they already have, almost half of those 70 million-plus skilled workers could earn, on average, 70% more than they earn today, and access opportunities in the post-Covid economy that are too often only available to those with college degrees. 

I know firsthand what that journey looks like and what it can lead to. After several other low-paying jobs, I discovered CoderGirl, an initiative of LaunchCode, which changed the course of my life by helping connect me to my first tech job. My new employer, Mastercard, recognized the skills I had acquired through alternative routes and valued my experience. I secured an apprenticeship and later a full-time position as a systems engineer.

But too many workers like me don't get that opportunity. And the challenge that STARs, particularly Black STARs, face in today's economic climate is, in many ways, no different from the one they faced before Covid-19. Our education and workforce system is still set up to screen out anyone who doesn't fit the image of a job-ready, traditionally-educated worker, which means predominantly women and people of color. In short, employers' reliance on the college degree is leading them to overlook millions of people with the skills to get the job done.

Across the country, business leaders are charting a path to economic recovery and reckoning with a centuries-old legacy of systemic racism. The reality is that these two challenges are, in many ways, connected. Employers can contribute to a more equitable recovery by rethinking the way they find, recruit, and recognize talent by removing unnecessary degree requirements in favor of skills-based hiring. Doing so will value the skills of half our working-age population who have gained high-value skills through alternative routes. 

And as we live through this economic crisis and brace for what's ahead, we have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to ensure that the world we create in the wake of Covid-19 is better than the one left behind. We must open doors, not close them, to the millions of Americans who lack a degree but are ready for work. 

—By LaShana M. Lewis, director of the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, director of IT at non-profit Givable, and a Fulbright Specialist.

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