Recruiting for a more diverse workforce

By Phil Wainewright - diginomica - 2019 02 04


One of the themes highlighted in discussions last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos has been the need to involve a broader range of recruits in the emerging digital economy. This is a looming issue for recruiters. Two-thirds of new jobs created in the US in past ten years have been "digitally-enabled," IBM CEO Ginni Rometty told one session. But many in society feel excluded from access to these jobs, she went on:

"I think there is a huge inclusion problem. A large part of society does not feel that this is going to be good for their future. Forget about whether it is or it isn’t, or what we believe – they feel very disenfranchised.

"Government cannot solve that problem alone. Those of us who build technology or benefit from it, we have a very serious duty. These technologies are moving faster in time ... causing the skills crisis. It’s going to mean that for society to participate broadly – if it’s the US, not just the two coasts ... Most people would say that tech has left the middle of the United States behind."

Part of the solution, she argues, is to cast the net more widely when recruiting – which includes creating new recruitment pathways, such as apprenticeships and other skill-building initiatives:

“As businesses we have to believe that we’ll hire for skills, not just for their degrees or their diplomas. Otherwise we’ll never bridge this gap. All of us have companies that are full of university degrees and PhDs; you’ve got to make room for everyone in society. You need to have new paradigms. You need to have new pathways that don’t all include college education.”

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had at UNLEASH in Amsterdam with Clemens Aichholzer, Senior Vice-President of Game-based Assessments at HireVue, which uses a mixture of video interviews, online games and coding challenges to help employers evaluate applicants. I had put it to him that the whole idea of assessing people by machine seemed rather depersonalizing. He pointed out that these automated techniques let recruiters examine a wider pool of applicants in more detail than traditional methods, which tend to favour those who are already advantaged:

“It’s tempting to say, if someone has already been prescreened — if they have gone to a good school or they’ve done a good degree — they must be smart. Basically you outsource the assessment of your candidates.

“What we can offer is almost a more democratic process … The problem that employers sometimes have is that they artificially narrow their applicant pool. They could cast a much wider net if they had a reliable assessment and — in a way have a fairer process — basically identify talent in spaces that are not as conventionally obvious.”

This argument that technology can help widen the applicant pool is reassuring, so long as you can be confident that it doesn’t introduce new forms of disadvantage. Hirevue is alert to the potential for artificial intelligence systems to build in unconscious bias, says Aichholzer, and takes steps to prevent this.

Provided such steps are taken, machines are less biased than humans, argues Kurt Heikkinen, President and CEO of AI-powered hiring vendor Montage, as he recently explained to my colleague Jon Reed:

“The human brain can only consciously process about 40 pieces [of information per second], meaning that humans often make decisions without consciously thinking – and the decisions are influenced by their background, culture, environment and personal experiences … Machines, when trained properly, can process more information objectively; they can be less biased when making hiring decisions.”

The right place to use AI is in the early phases of the recruitment process, says Heikkinen, citing research that shows most corporate recruiters agree:

“Of the 51% of organizations that use AI, most leverage the technology to automate administrative tasks like screening (57%), sourcing (52%) and scheduling (52%).”

That skills gap won’t be closed simply by smarter recruitment, though. Some tech companies are taking more direct action. Business software vendor Zoho hires 15% of its entire intake as high school students who enrol for on-the-job training under its Zoho University programme, initially established in India but now also opening up in Texas. As its CEO Sridhar Vembu told my colleague Jon Reed last year:

“Many underprivileged students in India, for example, don’t have college degrees and are just as capable as more ‘proven’ talent.”

Jon notes that this is equally true elsewhere. He recalls how contemporaries of his in Oklahoma had found themselves locked out of job opportunities because they couldn’t fulfil “degree requirements of questionable relevance.”

This is exactly what IBM’s CEO is talking about when she says the middle of the United States has been left behind. But of course every country and region has its left behind communities. One of the big challenges in today’s economy — not only for public policymakers but also for employers — is to find ways of identifying and energizing the neglected talent in those communities. This means recruiters must not only find ways to attract a wider cross-section of applicants. Their companies must also think about ways they can invest in those who could do the job, given the means to develop their skills.