We Can Build a Better, More Inclusive Tech Workforce

Friday, February 6, 2015
by Leigh Ross, Program Associate, Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in The New York Community Trust
New York’s technology industry is adding jobs at nearly four times the rate of the City’s overall economy. Better yet, it pays well. Local computer programmers make an average of $91,000 annually; while software developer salaries average $110,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. 
For many New Yorkers, however, the opportunities created by tech are out of reach. And while coding is often referred to as “the new literacy,” foundations are still grappling with how best to address the increasing need for rigorous, accessible computer science education.
A panel of educators, funders, and policymakers tackled the topic at a Philanthropy New York funders briefing on January 22. These are a few of my takeaways:  
  • School computer science teachers are in short supply. Of the 75,000 educators working in the City’s public schools, fewer than 100 teach computer science. This is partly because New York State doesn’t offer certification in the subject. It’s also due to the income gap between education and technology jobs, which makes it hard for schools to attract and keep skilled technologists. 
  • Diversity is low, and access is limited. It’s no secret that the nation’s top tech firms lack gender and ethnic diversity. Fewer than 26% of the computing workforce is female; less than 8% is black or Hispanic. And although New York is home to a number of training programs for would-be coders, these are often prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, groups like the Coalition for Queens are working to expand access to the field by offering free training in mobile application and web development to low-income adults.
  • Funders can make a difference. Funders like The New York Community Trust and the Pinkerton Foundation are investing in college and career-readiness programs like ScriptEd, which gets professional software developers to teach coding classes in poor schools (ScriptEd and other like-minded nonprofits have received support from the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund, a funder collaborative housed in The Trust). Those focused on systemic change—including the New York City Workforce Funders —have their eyes on the Tech Talent Pipeline. This new private-public partnership will partner with the City University of New York and the City Departments of Education and Small Business Services to provide middle-skill job training to thousands of disadvantaged New Yorkers.  
Foundations should keep in mind this field is new and changing rapidly. Consider Twitter, a multibillion dollar company with 284 million active users that was nonexistent ten years ago. Philanthropy tends to favor groups with long track records and evidence-based practices. But, in the words of to Leah Gilliam, Director of Mozilla’s Hive NYC Learning Network, “although many of the nonprofits doing this work are just starting out, they’re doing a lot.” Let’s hope more funders take the risk.
Leigh Ross is a Program Associate for the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in The New York Community Trust, a collaborative of funders that support digital media learning for adolescents, and make grants to the museums, libraries, and youth-serving nonprofits that comprise the Hive NYC Learning Network. For more about The Trust’s collaborative funds, please visit: http://www.nycommunitytrust.org/AboutTheTrust/CollaborativeFunds/HiveDigitalMediaLearningFund/tabid/620/Default.aspx
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