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Improving NYC's Tech Training

What must change in New York City's tech training landscape to ensure that employees in the industry reflect the city's diversity?

February 25, 2020
 
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Over the past 15 years, job creation in New York City has grown quickly. But most of those jobs have been in sectors that pay the least, such as food service and retail.

The industry growing the fastest in the city that also pays well is technology.

But the workforce of this sector doesn't reflect the city's diversity, according to Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on the city and its economy.

A recent report from the center helps explain why. The group surveyed the landscape of tech training in the city and found that most of the programs, which range from adult continuing education programs at community colleges to nonprofit organizations to popular for-profit boot camps, focus on basic digital literacy and beginner-level skills, with the more advanced programs focused on the wealthier boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"Only a tiny fraction of the tech programs that we have today are actually aligned with the needs that tech employers have," Dvorkin said. "We want to make sure that we’re not just talking about what the city can do to help more students get on the path to a college credential, but to really look at where are the good jobs growing and what does that skills-building ecosystem look like."

While the report applauds the city for its 506 tech training programs now in place, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio's commitment to offer computer science courses in every public school by 2025, it points to disparities that must be remedied to increase the diversity of the tech workforce and create opportunities for low-income New Yorkers to move into the middle class.

For instance, Manhattan and Brooklyn are home to 317 of the 467 sites that offer adult tech training programs and 303 of the 378 sites offering K-12 programs. In contrast, eight census-defined neighborhoods in the city, mostly in the Bronx and Staten Island, had zero K-12 programs in tech training.

Dvorkin wasn't necessarily surprised by this, he said.

"I do think, though, it’s alarming and it’s significant given all of the rhetoric and attention that the lack of access to STEM careers is getting," he added.

Tech:NYC, a network of tech leaders, partnered with the center to create the report because the industry wanted to map what was already out there to find the gaps, said Julie Samuels, executive director of the network.

"Tech has to support the K-12 and adult education ecosystem in the city," Samuels said. "In order for the tech sector to be part of that, they need to understand the landscape."

The network plans to use the information to help companies plug in to existing programs to create pipelines, she said. It also hopes to talk with policy makers about the report.

One of the largest obstacles identified in the report is a lack of bridge programs. Ninety percent of tech training programs for low-income adults focus on basic literacy and skills. But only 4 percent of nearly 160 adult tech training programs offered for free by nonprofits teach advanced coding or engineering skills, and only 6 percent provide training oriented toward careers for midlevel jobs.

The city needs to invest in bridge programs so that New Yorkers can get the basic skills they need and then transition into more advanced training programs, Dvorkin said.

Creating bridges from training to employment is also key. Employers often take a cautious approach of looking for hires who have already done the job they're hiring for, which can put entry-level positions out of reach for many, according to Ryan Craig, co-founder and managing director of University Ventures (and an occasional columnist for Inside Higher Ed).

When switching from a traditional model of getting a four-year degree to one based on certificates and skills, Craig said it's important to reduce hiring friction. For example, Talent Path, a hybrid of a boot camp and a recruiting company, pays students to serve as technology consultants at companies for short contracts. After students learn enough skills, they're hired on full-time. This lets employers "try before they buy," Craig said.

"Reducing hiring friction requires becoming the employer of record for a period of time, and probably also incurring the cost of sourcing, screening and training candidates," he said. "That’s a lot of working capital that’s often difficult for public and not-for-profit organizations to muster."

The report also recommends investing in more financial supports for low-income New Yorkers who are interested in tech training. While some programs may be free, adults also experience an opportunity cost from not working for however long the training lasts, Dvorkin said. This may be why there are so many basic skills programs, as it's easier to spend a few hours on that than commit to a months-long program, even if the results would be better.

"It's not just free tuition when we're talking about low-income students," Liz Eggleston, co-founder of the tech education site Course Report, said in an email. "As the report points out, transportation and childcare, the opportunity cost of being away from work, etc., are huge barriers."

Eggleston highlighted the Tech Talent Pipeline initiative, launched in 2014. The public-private partnership between the city and companies aims to provide resources to New Yorkers, as well as connections with employers. While many of the boot camps connected with the pipeline are full-time, students can get childcare and Metrocards to help, she said.

In its report, the center recommends investing $50 million in initiatives like the Tech Talent Pipeline to help the city reach its goals.

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