The systemic barriers to landing a Big Tech internship
May 3, 2023

The systemic barriers to landing a Big Tech internship

Ruthe Farmer, founder and CEO of the Last Mile Education Fund, says the process of applying for and securing an internship in tech often excludes low-income students who are educated at lesser-known colleges.

Summer internship season is right around the corner. While it’s never been easy to get one of the coveted spots at big-name Silicon Valley firms, this year there’s an added wrinkle: The tech industry is reeling from mass layoffs.

Many human resources departments and recruiting budgets have been slashed, which could put up even more barriers for candidates from underrepresented groups, said Ruthe Farmer, founder and CEO of the Last Mile Education Fund, which helps low-income students get through college and get on track for a career in tech.

That’s challenging even in the best of times, she told Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

A headshot of Ruthe Farmer, founder and CEO of Last Mile Education Fund.
Ruthe Farmer (Courtesy Last Mile Education Fund)

Ruthe Farmer: Most companies’ recruiting processes have been designed for affluent students. So you fly over to Seattle, and you stay in a fancy hotel, and you have all these interviews. And I have had students literally tell me that they went to go to an interview and they could not check into their hotel because the hotel wanted to put a $400 hold on their debit card. And so then they have to call their recruiter and say, “I can’t check in,” which is just this totally humiliating experience right before you’re going into an interview. And if we realize that more than half of our talent pipeline is coming from low-income backgrounds, that is a system that excludes them.

Meghan McCarty Carino: How is the slowdown in tech affecting internship recruitment?

Farmer: One thing that I have heard is that recruiting budgets have been cut. And what that is going to mean is that the recruiting teams of companies aren’t going to have as much capacity to go beyond a handful of schools. And that’s where we start to have a diversity problem. I think that what often happens is people have a perception that because you got into a school, like a Harvard or Stanford, you are better. And so a lot of effort is made to recruit these “top students.” But the reality is, there’s a tremendous amount of talent that is distributed across some 2,000-plus universities in this country that are being missed in the current process. And I would actually argue that a student who is from a low-income background, is the first-generation college student — that is one persistent, high-quality, hardworking person. And the companies that figure out how to recruit those students are the ones that are going to win, in my opinion.

McCarty Carino: In your work with students, what kinds of attitudes are you seeing about Big Tech as this kind of shift has been happening? I mean, has it lost some of its attraction for students to go intern?

Farmer: I’m seeing that the shine has worn off the penny. One of the things that I feel has been a bit of a bait and switch is all of this messaging to K-12 students — “Just code, everybody code. You’re going to get this amazing job. You’re going to make all this money.” But that’s truly not necessarily the reality. So I think there’s a little bit of disillusionment on that end. And then, there have been some not-so-nice political things in the tech space that have, I think, soured some students on Big Tech, and the conversation about ethics and technology and the damage that social media can have. I think that that has some students more interested in how they can do good with their skills as opposed to just make money.

McCarty Carino: Tell me a little bit more about the kinds of students that you work with in your organization and what kinds of barriers they face to the sort of traditional tech internship.

Farmer: Last Mile works with what we call striving students. So most people don’t realize that the vast majority of students from low-income backgrounds do not finish college. There’s been a tremendous amount of money invested in STEMspiration to push all these low-income and underrepresented students, which happen to be heavily correlated, pushing these groups into the [science, technology, engineering and math] talent pipeline but not actually fixing the structural barriers in the college experience that keep them from actually finishing. And it turns out, guess what, it’s money. It’s money. So we’re funding students who are in their “last mile,” so the last four semesters of the degree. So we’re not recruiting them into the major, they’re already in the major. We’re not having to convince them or launch them, we’re actually making sure that they have the resources they need to get over the hump to graduation. And sometimes, it’s a shockingly small amount of money, like our average grant overall is $1,100. So it doesn’t actually take that much to get a student to the finish line. But what I found is a lot of these students are what I would call disconnected. So you’re low-income, you’re struggling to make ends meet. So you’re working a lot of hours, heads-down studying, maybe youre first-generation and you’re going to a local or state university. Companies aren’t recruiting at those universities. And so those universities aren’t preparing you to be recruited. So they haven’t built the capacity that, say, a Stanford or Harvard has in the career services department because there’s no demand on their side.

And so I’ve run across students — and I’m not kidding you — who I’m, like, wait a minute, you’re almost going to graduate, you’ve never done an internship? And they literally didn’t know that internships in tech were paid because they were so heads down on surviving and getting through school that they weren’t joining the clubs and the groups, or maybe their school didn’t even have those clubs and groups that would have told them what they needed to do to get recruited. And so there’s a real lack of quality advising happening for students. And so we have scaled up and pushed so many more students into the talent pipeline. But we haven’t, in a commensurate way, scaled up the college advising piece and the career advising piece that needs to happen. And so I’m happy to say that we are catching them before it’s too late and able to connect them to those groups and organizations like Women in Cybersecurity or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or the Society of Black Engineers, whoever they need to be part of to be plugging into those networks before it’s too late.

McCarty Carino: If this moment does bring about a setback in efforts to make the tech industry more inclusive, what does that mean for the future of this industry?

Farmer: Inclusion and diversity equals innovation. The United States is one of the only First World nations who has a native diverse population at scale, and we are not leveraging it. But it is actually, literally a global competitive advantage. So if we can somehow figure out how to unlock the 75% of people we’re missing, we’re going to have a bright future. If we don’t, we’re going to lose to other countries, to other people who are more innovative. It’s just the bottom line.

More on this

On the topic of how layoffs are affecting much-needed efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech industry: Earlier this year, my colleague Kimberly Adams spoke to Christie Lindor, who runs a DEI consultancy that works with Fortune 500 companies. In that interview, Lindor warned that for young people of all backgrounds, finding a workplace that reflects the diversity and values of their peer groups is an increasingly important factor. So even a short-term move to put these efforts on hold in an industry that has been so slow to change could continue to have negative effects in the long term.

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