Priority Check

The pandemic creates opportunity for progress – or regression – on hiring diversity in tech.

Good Thursday afternoon,

Tech famously has a diversity issue, but increased attention to it in the last few years has led to gains as businesses hire more women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. TechCrunch even suggested in December that 2020 could be a tipping point for women in STEM careers.

The pandemic raises questions about whether the momentum will continue. The situation is dynamic and it is too early to know definitely if and how the pandemic will affect hiring. But there are a couple of reasons to be concerned on the diversity front.

During crises, people tend to focus on survival, of themselves and their business. Unless diversity is a priority already ingrained into a business’ culture, it can fall from focus. The CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms addressed the phenomenon in an interview last week, noting that last decade’s Great Recession stunted progress on diverse hiring.

Another reason for concern came Tuesday when Bloomberg News reported on a draft executive order that would, among other things, require tech workers with H-1B visas — one of the main visas for skilled workers, with about two-thirds going to STEM workers — to supply updated certifications to prove they are not displacing American workers. The president said additional immigration measures are also imminent.

The BBC notes that large numbers of U.S. immigrants hail from Mexico, China, and India, with many tech workers coming from the latter two. Although there is speculation that the visa change would primarily affect coastal tech hubs that attract many Asian immigrants — namely Silicon Valley and New York — it could significantly impact Midwest tech business’ workforces as well.

The American Immigration Council notes that demand for H-1B visas is not limited to Silicon Valley or New York City. Demand is high in Midwest metro areas rich with innovation businesses like Ann Arbor, Bloomington-Normal, Columbus, and Peoria. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2018 H-1B visa approvals shows a solid smattering across the Midwest. Chicago led the pack with nearly 30,000 visas, followed by Detroit with nearly 14,000; Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis at 1,900 each; Milwaukee with 1,500; and Kansas City with 1,400.

Consider that Chicago has the country’s second largest population of both Indian and Mexican immigrants, Minneapolis-St. Paul houses the largest population of Hmong immigrants, and the Detroit metro area has the largest Arab immigrant population. These cities and others in the Midwest face a possible demographic shift during an immigration pause and if some H-1B visa holders are disallowed from working in the country under new restrictions.

Hiring immigrants and H-1B visa holders diversifies the U.S. tech industry amid the predominance of while men, and eliminating these candidates from the pool — even temporarily — ticks down the diversity level. The president’s stated intention with the immigration measure is to preserve American jobs at a time when many are out of work, and it very well might. The key is to watch who gets hired and whether citizens from all backgrounds who want tech jobs are afforded the same opportunities.

That being said, tech currently has a hiring advantage over many other industries. Some tech jobs have been lost in the pandemic, but many companies in the industry are hiring right now. That’s due to a combination of factors, not the least of which is the need for innovations to assist with healthcare, distance learning and other pandemic-related challenges. Plus, traditional businesses need help migrating their operations online, which was what caused a demand surge for Chicago web app development company Ellytronic, which I highlighted earlier this week.

I plan to write more in the coming weeks on how the pandemic is affecting tech hiring. Let me know about Midwest tech businesses keeping workplace diversity at the heart of their recruiting so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas.

Other stories we’re watching:

  • Employees at University Hospitals in Cleveland will begin using skin patches to monitor their temperatures. The TempTraq patches, developed by Westlake, Ohio-based Blue Spark Technologies, continuously record temperatures and send the data to an app that will be watched by nurses for spikes that could indicate a case of COVID-19. (19 News)
  • A tech startup that matches healthcare workers with medical facilities in need of immediate shift coverage is offering its services for free for the next month. Apollo, headquartered in Iowa City, launched last year and is temporarily waiving feeds to support healthcare facilities during the pandemic. (Business Wire)
  • QuillBot has raised $4 million in seed funding as of Wednesday. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students developed the artificial intelligence writing tool to reconstruct typed text and make the user’s writing clearer and more concise. (Built In Chicago)

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