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Silicon Valley Under Fire for Weak Minority Recruitment Efforts

Silicon Valley Under Fire for Weak Minority Recruitment Efforts

When Jeffrey Forbes, a native of New Jersey, chose to attend Stanford
University and later the University of
California-Berkeley in computer
science, he believed their close proximity to Silicon
Valley would help enhance his educational experience.
“There’s great technology being developed by the companies out there,” says Forbes, who recently began teaching computer science at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Even though working in Silicon Valley did not rate as high on his priority list as preparing to teach computer science as a future professor, Forbes noticed that Silicon Valley firms were not making special efforts to recruit him and fellow African American students into their companies.
“I think a lot of Silicon Valley companies would be happy to have African Americans working for them. But I don’t think it’s a priority for them,” Forbes says.
The perception that Silicon Valley, the northern California region said to be the most influential center of computer and information technology development in the world, is indifferent to recruiting and hiring U.S.-born Blacks and Hispanics has become a national issue in recent years. The issue has become visible largely because of the H-1B temporary work visa program that has allowed nearly 300,000 foreign nationals to migrate to the United States to work in high-tech jobs since 1992.
Although the major clusters of computer and information technology jobs are spread around the country, Silicon Valley businesses have come under considerable fire because its business leaders have been the most visible in pushing for expansions in the H-1B program. In 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper found that in a study of 33 leading Silicon Valley firms employing 146,000 workers, only 4 percent of the employees were Black and 7 percent were Hispanic. In the San Francisco Bay area, Blacks and Hispanics make up 8 percent and 14 percent of the work force respectively, according to the study.
The work-force disparities in Silicon Valley with regard to Black and Latino underrepresentation have spurred civil rights and labor groups into action. They have charged that the H-1B program is giving jobs to lower-paid foreign nationals that American workers could fill, and that the program is rife with fraud.
“While leading the world in cutting-edge innovations, Silicon Valley does not yet represent the best of America when it comes to diversity,” wrote the Rev. Jesse Jackson in an opinion article published by the San Jose Mercury News in 1999.
 Last year, a coalition of groups loudly protested federal legislation to expand the H-1B visa program. Despite the outcry, federal lawmakers expanded the H-1B program by 70 percent, increasing the availability of visas from 115,000 to 195,000 per year.

Waiting for an invitation 
To a significant degree, African American professors, scientists, graduate students and undergraduates are beginning to take note of the hiring practices of Silicon Valley information technology companies.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” says Randal Pinkett, a Ph.D candidate at the MIT Media Lab program, of minority student recruiting efforts by Silicon Valley companies.
Pinkett, a former Rhodes Scholar who received a master’s in electrical engineering from MIT, says that if successful Silicon Valley companies are making it known they are active in solving the digital divide in the United States, those firms have an obligation to develop targeted national recruiting efforts to bring underrepresented minorities into their firms.
Pinkett, who is a well-respected authority on the digital divide, noted that the Clinton
administration established high-profile
initiatives with Silicon Valley companies that
heightened their visibility on the digital divide issue. He says it remains to be seen whether
Silicon Valley firms will play a significant role in the digital divide debate during the Bush
“I’m waiting to see how the corporations out there respond,” Pinkett says.
Both Forbes and Pinkett belong to an
organization known as the Institute for African American E-Culture (IAAeC). The group, which is a national organization, lists IT
work-force development in the Black community as one of its top priorities. Forbes says his position at Duke affords him the chance to
advise students about Silicon Valley opportunities. But he adds that the larger concern for him is getting Black and Latino students to major in computer science in the first place.
“If I had a plethora of Black computer
science students and no one wanted to go to
Silicon Valley, I’d be concerned. But the reality is that I don’t have a plethora of Black computer science students,” Forbes says.
Dewayne Hendricks, owner of the Fremont, Calif.-based Dandin Group, which specializes in developing broadband, wireless Internet
systems, says current efforts by Black activists and other officials to spur Silicon Valley firms to develop national programs to recruit Black and Latino employees are counterproductive.
“Most of the firms here are either too small or too strapped for resources to launch national searches for Black employees,” says Hendricks, who is one of the few Black entrepreneurs in
Silicon Valley. “[Civil rights groups are] taking the wrong approach. They’re yelling and screaming instead of solving the problem.” 
Hendricks urges that Blacks in leadership positions should take a more proactive approach in getting talented students and professionals hired by Silicon Valley companies. He recommends that Black institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities, and individuals, such as professors, take it upon themselves to get exposed to Silicon
Valley culture and establish professional
development internships and partnerships with companies.  
It baffles Hendricks, a native of Detroit who has worked in Silicon Valley since 1975, that Black Americans don’t seem to him to place taking advantage of Silicon Valley as high a priority as immigrant groups, such as South Asian Indians.
“This is like the Mecca. People from all over the world are trying to come here. And Black Americans are waiting for someone to invite them in,” Hendricks says.

dependent on foreign talent
A few years ago, Dr. Keith H. Jackson, a physicist and staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, joined an Oakland, Calif.-based group known as the Coalition for Fair Employment in Silicon Valley. The group, which is led by John Templeton, a Black information technology entrepreneur, has been among the most outspoken organizations on the lack of Black and Latino employment in Silicon Valley. The group has  opposed expansions of the H-1B program and is lobbying the federal government to monitor the program more stringently for abuse. 
“The H-1B program is a very hot issue in Northern California,” Jackson says.
Jackson, who has worked at Lawrence Berkeley, a Department of Energy national
laboratory, since the early 1990s, says he
encountered a heavy presence of H-1B visa holders at the government-sponsored labs in California and other locations.
“I was expecting 5 to 10 percent of the
scientists and engineers to be from abroad, but it’s been at least 50 percent,” Jackson says.
Jackson notes that in a trend similar to
Silicon Valley, IT businesses’ federal scientific facilities have become heavily dependent on foreign scientific and engineering talent. This presence of foreign talent coupled with his perception that the federal scientific establishment has been less than aggressive about bringing Black and Latinos into staff positions, has motivated Jackson to speak out and become active with Templeton’scoalition.
“It’s one thing for private companies to hire people on H-1B visas. It’s quite another thing to use public funds to hire people from Europe and the Far East to work on U.S. government sponsored projects,” Jackson notes.
Jackson says Silicon Valley’s reliance on foreign workers, many of whom are from
India, is bringing some attention to the
widespread problem of insufficient
educational investment in the United States, a dilemma he believes is responsible for the shortage of American-born scientists,
engineers and computing professionals.
“When you hear these companies talk about their focus on the global economy, that’s an uphemism for them bringing in foreign workers to the U.S.,” Jackson says. 

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