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Just how diverse is IT in the United States today? It depends on who you ask.

Some will say, “More than ever,” and tell you about companies that are itching for a mixed breed of recruits, that will brag about their minority representation and that consider it a great bonus to have dozens of cultures and languages represented within a single organization.

But others will say, sure, there is diversification, but only involving workers from very specific parts of the world. Where are the women and Hispanics, and why do certain areas of every company still only represent single groups of the population?

According to the ITAA (Information Technology Association of America), Asian-Americans made up only 11.8 percent of the work force in 2002, African-Americans represented only 8.2 percent of the IT work force, Hispanic-Americans represented only 6.3 percent and Native Americans 0.6 percent.

Yet, all analysts seem to agree that the job outlook for minorities in IT is strong, that IT is more diverse than ever and that in many cases, it is minorities who are helping to fill a talent gap between the numbers of older members of the work force poised to retire and the shortage of younger recruits to fill their shoes. Without a doubt it’s an imperfect picture, but in a state of constant improvement.

Strengthened supply

The trend toward IT professionals becoming a diverse group began over a decade ago.

“IT has been very diverse for some time. You started to see the work force diversify greatly in the late 1990s, and while there are entities that have more diversity than others, people’s focus these days is on the technical competence of an individual,” said Sean Ebner, vice president of Professional Services with a specialization in technology for Spherion Pacific Enterprises, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

In the late 1990s, Ebner told eWEEK, a shortage in IT workers led the United States to reach out to qualified candidates across geographical borders.

“Our existing work force’s technical resources were exhausted in 1996, which was when you really saw offshore partners coming in to fill critical shortages as companies ramped up for Y2K, from low-level skills such as help desks and mainframe application support to those that developed their onshore capabilities and moved on up. A lot of the people who came in on worker visas have stayed,” Ebner said.

Scott Saunders, dean of Career Services at the DeVry University of Southern California, a technology and business career college, gave his view of the diversification of the field of technology from a firsthand perspective.

“Our minority student population has gone from … 45 to 52 percent enrollment since 1998, with many of them being first-generation college students. California is even more diverse, with minorities making up 67 percent of our statewide student population, which makes us far more diverse than the population at large,” Saunders said.

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Many aspects of the way the university is set up make it a strong draw for minorities, he said. “We attract a lot of people already working, who have … started families at younger ages and need a school close to home, which all contribute to our diversity, as well as a business and technology curriculum that gets them into the job market much faster than if they attended a traditional institution,” he said.

In launching tech careers for thousands of minorities yearly, DeVry gets to “see firsthand the favorable employment opportunities for minorities in the IT industry,” Saunders said.

Clear demand

The demand for a diversified IT work force is everywhere, experts say.

“There are high percentages of minorities working in government IT, on both the local and federal levels, and in the nonprofit sector, including universities. For regions of potential growth, the California desert is growing quickly …[although it is still] not as popular a destination as the Silicon Valley … The Washington, D.C., area is strong, and I’m not just talking about inside the Beltway, for the government, but also contractors in Northern Virginia,” Todd Raphael, editor-in-chief for ERE (Electronic Recruiting Exchange) of ERE Media, a provider of recruiting information and networking opportunities, told eWEEK.

Raphael said he sees a strong overall demand for IT professionals and a slew of non-technical niche industries hiring at an above-average pace, giving opportunities for minorities to advance their careers.

“Accounting has been a hot field recently, because of new government regulations creating the need for more financial/accounting pros and the technology to help comply with the regulations,” Raphael said. “Another area is staffing. Staffing and recruiting technology has become popular, and IT specialists in those technologies can really make a name for themselves in that niche. The health care field has plenty of room for bright new IT talent. I think it’s a field you can bank on growing in the future. Defense and transportation are other industries that have an increasing need for IT professionals,” he said.

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Companies today brag about their diversity to attract new candidates, creating an environment where having grown up in another culture is considered a plus.

“Minorities do have an edge in some areas, and there are companies that are specifically looking for diverse workers. Having knowledge of another culture is considered a huge advantage,” Saunders said.

Still, diversity lags

Many noting that technology as an industry has a long way to go before it is representative of the population at large, however.

“I don’t think IT is fast becoming a more diverse field. I don’t think there has been a large increase in the number of women in IT, or the number of Hispanics or blacks in IT. There doesn’t seem to be the same problem integrating Asian-Americans into IT as other minorities. For example, according to ‘Diversity/Careers’ magazine, one-third of IBM’s Ph.D.s are Asian,” Raphael said.

Raphael cited many reasons for why there is still a lack of diversity in IT, noting that the reasons are different for different groups. Among some minority groups, he said, he considers the lack of quality math and science education in the United States to be a strong deterrent.

“For Hispanics and blacks, there are still not a large number of them receiving degrees in the sciences and in math. That’s at the root of the problem—something that we need to address in our educational system. Employers should play a greater role in this, going into schools and talking to minority kids about careers in technology. Employers should set up internships with minority kids and otherwise get their names out there in front of minority youth. Intel and Dell are doing some work in this area. But employers can’t solve it alone,” Raphael said.

This sentiment—that minority groups are more affected by a lack of support in schools—was echoed by Susan Merritt, Ph.D., Dean of Pace University’s Ivan G. Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.

“Minorities are unevenly hit by problems in public schools and harder hit by poor preparation in the areas of math and science,” Merritt said. “There is a lot of concern over lack of minorities in IT. The numbers—especially women—are not representative of the population at large. Though preliminary looks at this year’s enrollments of women show some improvement, I think the problem of a lack of diversity continues.”

Raphael, noting that women are getting bachelor degrees in math and science at a faster pace than ever, said he finds the continued lack of women in IT confusing.

“As to why most IT professionals I meet are still male—the truth is, I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t seen a definitive study that provides one,” he said.

Finally, there is the touchier subject of subsets of IT professionals that lack diversity, but not in the ways people traditionally assume.

“At times, you hear [about] individuals who are strong candidates but may not be good cultural fits, about managers that like to keep continuity. There may be an entire team from one region of the world and the cultural thicket gets very specific. It is even possible to see reverse discrimination,” Ebner said.

Finally, there is the commonly raised issue of a looming IT talent gap caused by Baby Boomer-aged professionals heading toward retirement and an insufficient supply of recruits to fill their shoes. On this topic, Ebner paints a brighter picture.

“There’s a lot of talk about the talent gap, and it’s being filled in greater proportions by people from South Asia. They’ve moved up and they’re becoming IT industry leaders,” Ebner said. “There’s no question these talent gaps are being filled by a more diverse group.”

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