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How Mayor Parker can use tech policy to boost Philly’s economy and strengthen opportunity

Investing in pipeline programs, attracting new talent, and focusing on how tech can improve city services are all within the 100th mayor’s purview.

Philadelphia skyline, looking north. (Imagic Digital/Mark Henninger)

TL;DR

  • Programs exist to help Philly residents get tech jobs, but they’re currently small relative to the challenge. The Parker administration should prioritize growing them through awareness, support and coordination.
  • As the global population slows and the millennial boom fades, Philadelphia can boost growth by being welcoming to tech workers — in a recent survey, three quarters of tech workers outside the region were open to relocating here.
  • Philadelphia already has a ton of data dashboards and reports, but they’re overwhelming, and could use a designated leader to sort through. The Office of Innovation and Technology isn’t the only place within city government where using tech is critical to progress.

Most tech work happens outside the tech industry.

The Philadelphia region has fewer than 100,000 jobs at tech companies, but closer to 150,000 tech workers across all industries, according to Technical.ly’s reporting last month. Thousands more use technology as creators, artists and in an array of other fields, from the building trades to advanced manufacturing to the life sciences.

No surprise that Mayor Cherelle Parker, who was inaugurated last week, has already signaled her interest in technology.

Parker’s transition team featured a slew of workforce development leaders focused on tech skills. A few tech entrepreneurs and technologists were there too. One of the mayor’s first executive orders was a pledge to prioritize being “visible, responsive and effective,” terms commonly used by civic tech nerds to describe data analysis, digital services and web tools.

That’s a fine start. Here then, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice to the Parker administration about what might come next.

As Technical.ly cofounder and publisher, and after 15 years of local business and economics reporting across mayoral administrations in a half-dozen U.S. cities, including the last three in Philadelphia, I’ve seen priorities that work — and ones that don’t.

Mayors are constrained in what they can directly impact (they have less influence on crime, for instance, than we might hope). But there are steps worth making to reach common priorities: Grow a more inclusive and dynamic local economy with happier, healthier and wealthier residents. Or as Parker has been saying: a city that’s “safer, cleaner, greener, with economic opportunity for all.”

To reach those goals, city leaders care about tech for three reasons: Job opportunities for existing residents who gain new skills, attracting new residents who already have those skills, and using those skills to improve city services. Let’s address all three.

What can Cherelle Parker do to make tech careers more accessible for existing Philadelphia residents?

We care about tech jobs because there’s a lot of them, we expect more of them and there’s not enough people to fill them — which results in a lot of them paying very well. Average earnings across the tech jobs Technical.ly tracks are above $150,000 a year.

Many Philadelphians never make it to these career pathways for a few reasons, including lack of interest, no exposure or too many obstacles. All three are served in part by high-quality public education — a foundational priority that is complicated by federal, state and school district priorities. Still, a signature Parker campaign priority was year-round public education, which she told Technical.ly would include career training and tech skills development.

Without robust, district-wide tech career skills development, individual schools and programs have stepped into the void. Consider a few that could be expanded with mayoral support:

  • The husband-wife duo of Sylvester and Danae Mobley who lead the high-profile Coded by Kids nonprofit (of which I have previously served as a board member) launched 1Philadelphia to raise $20 million in funds to serve as a kind of re-granting clearinghouse toward structural workforce changes.
  • Building21 and the Workshop School (of which I am also a board member) are good examples of public high schools that make tech skills accessible, and the Science Leadership Academy is an oft-cited magnet public school that does the same. Several charter schools, and most private schools, have developed focused curricula on tech skills.
  • Launchpad and the Philadelphia Robotics Coalition are examples of youth programs that could benefit from higher-profile involvement.
  • In its own way, given the research that demonstrates how important early childhood education is, the Kenney administration’s signature policy accomplishment PHL Pre-K is also part of the solution.

The Parker administration must continue these long-term strategies, none of which directly affect tech employment during her tenure. Sensibly, the mayor will also consider strategies that have a more immediate impact on current residents entering the tech workforce.

To paraphrase a local workforce exec I spoke to recently: We need years to develop kids, but we only need weeks or months with adults.

Here is where career changers come into play. Among big cities, a relatively low share of Philly’s workforce is in tech roles, and many are in low-wage positions vulnerable to automation. This is an opportunity to move Philadelphians from lower-demand jobs into higher-demand careers.

How do you make your bets? You listen to what employers and residents need.

A vehicle for that already exists: the Commerce Department’s Tech Industry Partnership, which Technical.ly receives funding to help organize, with quarterly meetings that facilitate dialogue between the private sector and City Hall. The group’s primary initiative has been the Most Diverse Tech Hub, a consortium of programs with missions set on a more representative tech workforce.

That has already helped coordinate a slew of efforts to transition residents into in-demand tech jobs. Among the most relevant programs to know:

The city’s colleges and universities, including the Community College of Philadelphia, also contribute. As Parker told Technical.ly: “We need to look at our educational institutions as a cohesive unit with the purpose of supporting workforce development across our city.”

Programs and resources exist to transition current residents into tech roles. But the programs are small relative to the challenge, and many residents face bigger obstacles.

Informed by employer demands, the Parker administration should prioritize growing these private-sector programs through awareness, support and coordination.

What can Cherelle Parker do to attract and retain existing tech professionals to Philadelphia?

One of the few truly bright lights in Philadelphia’s pandemic years was our respectable 5% population increase in the 2020 Census. The city’s nearly 20 years of modest population growth has been driven largely by immigrants and what we might call “the millennial dividend” — Philly retained a slightly higher share of an especially large generation.

We can’t rely on this going forward. Boomers are retiring and millennials are aging out of widespread relocations. In contrast, Gen Z is a smaller generation.

We still should build on our success in retaining more college graduates by focusing on tech graduates, who are among those still most likely to leave after getting their degrees. But since their numbers are smaller, and all of academia faces an “enrollment cliff”, what got us growth in the past won’t do it again.

The global population is expected to begin shrinking by 2100. For now, Philadelphia can still grow, and we should expect it. To attract tech professionals, follow the same plan to attract anyone who could live anywhere: Make Philadelphia the best version of itself. That includes culture and art and history and urbanity, with the transit and bicycles and community that comes with it. There are also some factors specific to those in tech careers.

For now, the United States is still the most sought-after destination for people wishing to emigrate from their home countries, as Gallup reports. At present, the City of Philadelphia has the highest foreign-born population since the 1940s, per Pew research. Immigrants are disproportionately likely to be tech professionals, and a high share of international students at Philly’s universities are pursuing tech degrees. Focus here.

The majority of tech workers still do work in offices, and so growing companies here isn’t unimportant — a Gopuff headquarters to rival URBN would be helpful to recruit new technologists. But a generation of city-founded tech startups is moving to remote work. Look at dbt Labs, Crossbeam and Guru, all downsizing or cutting their leases. The focus on homegrown software startups may be less valuable today than in 2019.

Instead, focus on industries that still require in-person work — like robotics, life sciences and a tiny remaining manufacturing footprint. Relatively fewer of the tech workers in the Philadelphia region work at tech firms; They’re more likely to work in financial services, retail, healthcare or telecom, according to a Technical.ly analysis. On average, those industries have higher in-office rates than tech, which means those companies need technologists here.

Never before has the community of technologists who host meetups and conferences, use coworking spaces and live in this city felt more the priority. Last month, I argued that if entrepreneurs were the local priority of the 2010s, then in the 2020s it is about the technologists.

If a mayor is a city’s chief booster, then Mayor Parker ought to know that Philadelphia is starting from a point of relative strength. Three quarters of tech workers living outside this region were open to relocating to Philadelphia, according to a survey commissioned in 2022 by the Philadelphia Chamber. The same survey showed 86% were open to tech jobs at non-tech firms, of which Philadelphia has plenty.

What can Cherelle Parker do to use technology to improve city services?

Years ago, I interviewed a recently elected, big city mayor-elect as part of a conference’s keynote. When I asked how technology could improve city services, he made a lazy joke about how government websites were bad because city employees were ineffective. He was grasping for a laugh-line, but I turned my gaze to a portion of the audience populated by a handful of cheerful and committed city IT workers. I saw a look of exasperation.

In my 15 years reporting on civic tech, I’ve routinely found individual contributors making meaningful contributions with “.gov” email addresses. And of all the many things mayors cannot do, they very much are the chief executive and chief recruiting officer of a workforce — of some 25,000 people in Philadelphia’s case.

Given how constrained the tech workforce is in the private sector, CEOs of major corporations see themselves as tech recruiters. Mayors should, too.

That starts with the chief information officer role, presently filled by interim leader Sandra Carter and backed by a team of deputy CIOs, including long-tenured and well-liked Andrew Buss, whose responsibilities have put him most often in contact with the city’s tech community.

City gov’s tech team is currently named the “Office of Innovation and Technology” (OIT), which is effective in conveying the department’s dual mandate of whiz-bang advancements with back-office IT services. As one insider joked with me: “It’s tough to think about crypto when you’re also thinking about COBOL.”

That tension dates back at least 20 years, to when then-Mayor John Street’s CIO, Dianah Neff, played a leadership role in the administration’s bold attempt to deploy municipal broadband with Wireless Philadelphia. Mayors have gotten this wrong on both extremes: Nutter administration CTO Allan Frank wanted too much innovation for his time, and Kenney’s Charlie Brennan wasn’t open enough.

“Most Philly mayors have been bored by all this tech stuff,” one former city IT worker told me. “They want someone who will make sure the phones work and will bore Council, too.”

That’s a missed opportunity. A government tech team that works closely with the tech community makes every single other city department more effective. City IT defends against multi-million dollar ransomware attacks, advances permitting processes to increase affordable housing and champions open-data releases to boost civic participation.

Moreover, OIT is far from the only city department that intersects with efficiency. A mayor needs to know that their tech agenda isn’t about when Microsoft Word gets updated. It’s about the effectiveness of every single department and agency and function the city has.

Here Philadelphia has reasonably made steady, if inconsistent, progress dating back at least to the Rendell administration. Continue this. To inform this work, the city already has a  chorus of data dashboards and reports, which are helpful, but overwhelming. To that end, I’d take seriously VisionPhiladelphia’s call for a chief analytics officer to comb through data.

Tech policy priority recommendations for Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker. (Technical.ly)

The Parker administration has big opportunities ahead. Philadelphia will influence the coming 2024 presidential election, and we will play host in 2026 to the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In its own way, the US Economic Development Administration shortlisting Philadelphia for its Tech Hubs program could be a major boost.

All these require big thinking, and a mayor is our chief representative. Here, tech policy is an effective proxy for all big city government management: Give us both a vision for a bold future, and make sure the websites work. Both are important.

My clearest message to the Parker administration is that many solutions exist. Rarely do we need more, but rather better known, better coordinated and better utilized programs. Tech work is no longer confined to the tech industry. It is entwined with everything you hope to accomplish.

Companies: City of Philadelphia
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