Five Questions With: Pat Larkin

Pat Larkin is director of the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, also known as MassTech, which has just announced a Tech Talent Diversity Initiative to diversify the ranks within the workforce. Grant solicitation is underway now, with a goal to streamline recruitment, support placement and increase workplace success of underserved candidates in the tech sector.

PBN: One of the goals of the Tech Talent Diversity Initiative is “to improve employer practices … among diverse populations, including efforts to address potential unconscious bias in hiring and retention.” What is unconscious bias?

LARKIN: [It’s] sometimes referred to as implicit bias. It’s when people develop stereotypes “that form outside their own conscious awareness.” Jobs in our innovation economy account for nearly 40% of all jobs in the state. Innovation and tech companies are often fast-paced, demanding environments. Under those pressures to hire, companies often look to the same sources for their next wave of employees – the same colleges, the same training programs, or their own employees for referrals. That means they look beyond potential candidates if they don’t meet a certain educational or training threshold or fit a particular mold. Or in the worst cases, don’t “look” like they would fit with a company. These are just a few of the ways that unconscious bias could put certain candidates at a disadvantage.

PBN: What is an example of an entity doing great work in diverse hiring and recruiting in Massachusetts?

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LARKIN: With an open solicitation inviting applicants to apply for funding, it would be inappropriate for me to cite examples of organizations working on diverse hiring and recruiting practices. However, there is a lot of work underway to promote diversity in other disciplines that I can comment on.

Our grantee Entrepreneurship for All in Fall River/New Bedford provides mentorship support for women and minority populations in this underserved region of the state. Out of the 350 startups they have served in seven regions across Massachusetts, EforAll has achieved 75% women and 60% minority participation rates across their programs. EforAll is an extraordinary story of empowerment for individuals from diverse populations who have the skills and a desire to start a firm.

PBN: Cybersecurity is one tech area in which opportunity exists for people in general, including underrepresented populations. What other tech sectors could use strong candidates?

LARKIN: Beyond cyber, there are strong talent needs across tech, generally including [information technology]; software coding and data analytics; and in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, “internet of things” and robotics. Digital health, the intersection of health care and technology, is another area that has a great deal of opportunity.

Our agency works on the Massachusetts Digital Health Initiative, a public-private partnership aimed at growing that sector. They recently launched a digital-health jobs board, which features 1,800 open jobs at 300-plus Massachusetts companies – highlighting the very real need for trained workers in that sector.

PBN: Organizations can apply for this grant based on new or existing diversity efforts?

LARKIN: Yes, both. We can go with new organizations looking to increase participation rates from women or diverse populations or we can support existing programs that are looking to “supercharge” their activities. Most importantly, we are looking for partners that demonstrate the understanding that diverse perspectives and life experiences in our workforce are critical elements toward enterprise development and economic growth. The tech economy is one fueled by new ideas. Studies indicate adding workers from diverse backgrounds can only help spur new innovation, bring new products to bear and drive revenue growth.

PBN: What are some of the things that are important in not only attracting talent via internships or entry-level tech positions, but retaining team members once hired?

LARKIN: There are challenges across the entire pipeline and that includes after a candidate is hired. I think an important one is providing ongoing mentoring and networking opportunities for candidates from underserved populations who make it into the tech workforce. We need to increase the “stickiness” – make it so that once they’re on a job path, they stick with it. They can change jobs; we just want to make sure they have the support and encouragement that will allow them to stay in the tech sector.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.