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Immigrants vs students and lies about a lazy workforce

I’ve had more meetings than I can count with hiring managers, VPs of people, Deans, and college Presidents about why emerging professionals aren’t prepared for the world of work. Over the past 2 months alone I’ve had at least 50 of these conversations across big tech, big consulting, and a variety of state and national student services leaders. And no matter how we break the whole thing down, there’s a resounding absence: no one is asking graduating students or emerging professionals about their experience.

Unemployment is high, but Americans aren’t necessarily taking jobs. Now I realize that we can’t really compare H1B visas (usually highly skilled and at least somewhat experienced professionals) to opportunities for emerging professionals with only a few years of experience--an apples to oranges conversation. And that’s OK. What we should be asking is why people who aren’t employed (or are under-employed) are blamed in the first place.

People outside the US are blamed for “stealing” American jobs even though there’s nothing to support this and people of color inside the US who struggle to find living wage work are called lazy. Both are often blamed for their situation, regardless of the context. People who are un- or under-employed must be lazy, the old story goes.

And there’s nothing like riling up a COVID-afflicted and stressed populace with the menace of a bunch of meanies coming for what’s rightfully theirs. Let’s get real: this is a zero-sum game where absolutely no one wins. Like in poker, if there are absolute winners and losers, then the game stops. Domination might sound sexy--who doesn't want to win?!-- but business can’t afford to play a binary win/lose game.

So let’s illustrate what’s up with emerging professionals.

Picture this. A major tech company puts together a free curriculum for emerging computer science professionals. Anyone who goes through the program gets a certification from the company and is first in line for a paid internship that, if completed, puts them first in line for an even better paying entry-level job. I was asked to consult on the program, including curriculum, design, equitable access, demographic inclusivity, and overall user experience. The program was solid from a science of learning perspective and, while I personally might have made some adjustments, I was sincere when I thanked them for their work designing more opportunities for emerging professionals from under-represented backgrounds.

This should be a happily ever after story, right? Students sign up, get access to amazing resources, get family-wage jobs in the oh-so-coveted tech world, and avoid the crushing debt of their peers?

And lest we think this is pure altruism--though, again, I thank and applaud companies offering these types of programs--there’s plenty of data to show that early career professionals will remain loyal or even return later to companies that invest in them. Same as when kids adopt a cereal brand early in life. We return to that which gives us the warm and fuzzies. Or sometimes we just go where the professional connection is. Either way, it’s not a sacrifice for companies, but demonstrably a huge win.

OK, so this opportunity goes out to students... and their first reply? “I’m not qualified.” They all thought it was for fancier people with fancier credentials from fancier institutions.

The very emerging professionals the program was designed for believe that they don’t have what it takes to succeed. When people--in this case predominantly low income, and 70%+ Black, Latinx people and 50%+ women are told implicitly and explicitly that they don’t belong in business or tech, that this world is not for them... that narrative sinks in deep. None of us is immune--we all believe the messages we get year after year.

I wish I could tell you this particular anecdote has a happy ending. So far the whole thing is still in flux. Students have been told to “not take the application so seriously” and to go ahead and apply if they’re probably a good fit. But no one’s asking these human beings what would give them the impression that they’re welcome. That they belong. That they’re wanted.

So the narrative is that people are lazy. Or that young folks expect others to take care of them. Not all, but many of these same would-be participants are juggling a part-time job, school, and family obligations like caring for a grandparent. Many of them are juggling a to-do list as long as the executives I know, but with fewer amenities and resources at their disposal. Of course we can find lazy people in any demographic, but that narrative, wholesale, is a myth.

So I sat down with a group of students and asked them a few questions.

What prevents you from taking advantage of training and employment? What gets you from contemplation to action when it comes to professional opportunities? What kind of job and company gets you motivated or turns you off?

For the science-y nerdy types (my people--hi there!) I recognize this is a very small sample size. I’m in the process of collecting more feedback. But some student representation is surely better than none and gets the conversation going.

For one, students say that business doesn’t know how to talk to people who aren’t ‘in’ yet. So when the exact person an opportunity was designed for reads the description and thinks “this was designed for an insider” they’re half right--it was designed by an insider. For some examples of what’s working--Digital Nest is doing a great job of translating between business and humans.

The 2nd big point is that students are so encumbered by obligations they don’t have time to pursue your opportunity on your timeline. Designing accessible programs isn’t just about content and messaging, it’s also about format and timing. If your program conflicts with someone’s part time job that pays for groceries or the time they need to take care of their aging aunt while their cousin is at work, they’re only going to enroll if it’s on demand or can come to them. When it comes to low-income folks, it’s sometimes just a pure scheduling or timing accessibility issue. I haven’t yet found anyone addressing this well, but some colleagues and I are working on it through a combination of highly adaptable scheduling and real-time matchmaking between emerging professionals and hiring managers.

And finally, students are burnt out on the virtue signaling from companies. Several said that they get turned off when massive organizations with massive budgets say one thing and do another. And we should consider applauding them for this. We wouldn’t encourage a young person to date someone who says all the right things but then doesn’t act in their best interest. Aka, stop talking about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging --Young people aren’t buying the marketing and they're not impressed with just writing checks or hosting events. Many large companies are in the too-little-too late category in the eyes of Gen Z and digital natives. A lot of my work is keeping an eye out for these trends, so stay tuned.

Tying it all together. The humans doing the work--the “talent”--are the ones missing from conversations on how to create a better workforce. Whether they’re fresh out of training or have a robust portfolio under their belt… only they can really inform us about the job seeker, application, and inclusion process. As with any product, intentions are lovely, but it’s up to designers to understand and integrate the user experience.

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