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A more diverse tech workforce can help close skills gaps. This DMV collaboration is creating the pathways to careers

Capital CoLAB is working with educators, local government and employers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to build skills and align talent for tech and digital careers. With TalentReady and other programs, it is putting a priority on equity.

Capital CoLab wants to build the most diverse tech workforce. Photo by Lagos Techie on Unsplash

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity in Tech Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by Verizon 5G. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Verizon before publication.

There’s plenty of evidence that tech is growing in the Greater Washington region.

Proof is found not only in the new tech companies that are forming, but also in the workforces across the largest employers of government, businesses and healthcare, where teams of technologists that build, maintain and service systems make up increasing shares of the employees.

This growth is fed by local institutions that produce talent, and it’s bringing increasing numbers of jobs with the kinds of wages that can sustain families, and build wealth. However, the increase could also prove to overwhelm the labor pool if more people with the skills to do these jobs aren’t entering the workforce with the skills to do them. According to the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of employers from Baltimore to Richmond, the number of digital and tech-adjacent jobs that could go unfilled annually is a whopping 60,000.

With the formation of the Capital CoLAB — short for Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business — in 2018, GWP started a region-wide effort to address that gap by partnering with educators and employers to build new pathways to digital careers. The route to get there, leaders say, is through giving more women and Black and Latinx professionals the opportunity to get involved in them.

“These are people that we want to be in digital tech pathways who absolutely deserve the right to have a digital tech job and a family sustaining wage,” said Jeanne Contardo, VP and managing director of the Capital CoLAB. “We just have to have a system that allows them to participate in an equitable way.”

So the idea is not just to grow the region’s digital workforce, but to do so by making it the most diverse in the country, as the CoLAB’s vision statement puts it. And it is front center in its goals: The CoLAB seeks to engage 45,000 students, with at least 50% of those coming from underrepresented backgrounds.

In practice, that has meant standing up programs that take new approaches to practices like career and technical education and work-based learning. It has also meant convening stakeholders from across school districts, higher ed, local government and employers in an effort to align the training and early work experiences that can lead to jobs with the skills and abilities that employers are seeking.

The idea is not just to grow the region's digital workforce, but to do so by making it the most diverse in the country.

This is evident in TalentReady, a CoLAB program that seeks to start building those pathways in high school. Collaboration is evident throughout. It brings together stakeholders in the work from jurisdictions around the region, including Baltimore City, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and D.C. And it is funded through a philanthropic partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase.

For Bloomberg Philanthropies, the work grew out of its portfolio of investments on career and technical education, and it also built on work in the region. It also wanted to work with intermediaries building new approaches.

“One of the things we are intentionally trying to do is to work with places that can be great examples, evidence-based, and are building the proof points and the momentum for this to happen in more places and at greater scale,” said Jade Grieve, an advisor focused on education at Bloomberg. “This idea of a regional collaboration is a really strong innovation.”

By connecting K-12, higher ed and city leaders with employers, the goal is to open up pathways through high school education, degrees and certifications and work experiences that are aligned with what employers want. Leaders see that tech jobs are in demand. At the same time, getting a foothold in the industry often doesn’t require a four-year degree.

For the CoLAB, the way to get more people into them is by creating the infrastructure that allows pathways to grow within institutions that serve diverse populations, providing support and engaging them, Contardo said. However, it’s not an approach that involves one set program across every program participant.

No micromanaging

At D.C. Public Schools, work with TalentReady is part of a “portfolio” of offerings it is providing for students as it seeks to provide the skills and knowledge that can lead to living wage jobs, said Deputy Chief of Graduation Sarah Navarro.

“We are trying really hard to get away from this college vs. career narrative,” Navarro said. “Based on all of the data, both qualitatively and quantitatively, it’s just not an either or, and our students have journeys that very much have both.”

At the same time, the leaders recognize the importance of digital and tech careers as an important career track. Working with TalentReady has brought support for its pathways in digital media, IT networking, computer science and recently added computer maintenance. It is also expanding an internship program that has placed more than 700 students, and it is bolstering its career academy program with two additional directors, who connect with both students and employers to expand work-based learning, said Emily Carter, the manager of data and strategy in the DCPS Division of College and Career Programs.

Having as many opportunities as possible helps build skills alongside classroom work.

Baltimore City Public Schools was in the midst of revamping its career and technical education programs following a 2019 report by the Fund for Educational Excellence that called for big change. It was around that time TalentReady was building partnerships.

Dr. Rachel Pfeifer, executive director of college and career readiness at BCPS, jumped at the chance to incorporate an in-demand area.

“IT and computer science became a great area for us to focus on and to do so in collaboration with other districts,” she said.

Along with working on its own programs, BCPS is also working with the Mayor’s Office Employment Development and partnering orgs to expand work-based learning. A recently announced tech internship program spearheaded by the inclusion-focused coalition Baltimore Tracks offers evidence of one new partnership coming to the fore.

“We’re trying to standardize our practices when it comes to work-based learning and centralize it in a way so that we have eyes and ears on what’s going on, so that we can also understand what partnerships are out there and which ones we still need to have, and what experiences our students are having or still need to have,” said Albert Phillips Jr., BCPS’ work-based learning specialist.

The pivot points are important for careers. Experiential opportunties can help, whether it’s a summer job or internship, a job, or college. Having as many opportunities as possible helps build skills alongside classroom work.

“We want to start this as early as possible to make sure there’s no challenging transition points for residents as they go from school to career,” said Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of Baltimore’s Mayor’s Office Employment Development.

Regional collaboration

As it seeks to do so, it’s also bolstered by one key thing that TalentReady brings: The ability to work with other districts as they build programming. The partners are frequently in touch, and the Capital CoLAB team convenes them for events.

“We really appreciate being able to collaborate on a regular basis, and being able to pick up the phone to call someone in our region to be able to thought partner,” BCPS’ Phillips said.

It underscores what makes TalentReady unique: It is taking an approach that not just works across the region, but connects the folks within it. Along with allowing educators the chance to convene and share, the CoLAB is also organizing events where students can meet tech professionals who are women, Black and Latinx. The DMV-wide intention behind the effort might impact how one considers an economy. As folks think about careers, they increasingly don’t see the same borders as jurisdiction leaders might. And remote work has opened up new opportunities that blur those bounds further. It’s why leaders in Baltimore are talking to employers from Northern Virginia, as well as those in the city.

“The data showed previously that many residents work outside of the jurisdiction where they live, and many residents travel or move to jurisdictions where there is more talent,” Baltimore’s Perkins-Cohen said. “We’re more interested in making sure that people are successful than we are in looking at artificial boundaries.”

Scaling up

The Capital CoLAB is also seeking to strengthen ties with employers. While it’s understood that IT and digital skills are in demand, developing pathways also means setting up programs that align with specific skillsets within those careers that folks seeking jobs need to have.

CoLAB is issuing a challenge to employers not only have a strategy to make opportunities available, but also equitable.

“We know there are employers who are desperate for talent, who have space limitations in terms of ability to grow and expand because they can’t find employees to fill highly technical roles,” said Ahnna Smith, executive director for the D.C. Workforce Investment Council. “At the end of the day if our educational institutions aren’t actually training and providing folks with the skills and competencies that employers are seeking, we’re not doing our jobs. That is the feedback loop that’s so critical, especially at the pace at which jobs and the world of work is changing.”

However, it would be difficult for educators to talk to every employer. The CoLAB’s approach to solve this is a tool called the Employer Signaling System. It gathers data from employers on what their desired knowledge, skills and abilities are. This provides information for educators both in high school and postsecondary programs to design curriculum that fits.

“The Employer Signaling System is that tool that is designed to shine the light in the black box of what needs to happen between educators and the workforce,” CoLAB’s Contardo said. “It’s a play to create digital tech talent at scale across our region.”

Another part of the strategy focuses specifically around work-based learning. Drawing on a recently released analysis by Higher Ed Insight, the CoLAB is issuing a challenge to employers not only have a strategy to make opportunities available, but also equitable. In all the CoLAB draws on a network of 18 major employers, 27 higher education institutions and five K-12 school systems and it wants them all engaged.

As Robert Owens, the Capital CoLAB’s director of workforce initiatives, put it: “It takes a whole village and strategy to make sure each jurisdiction has a plan in place.”

Series: Racial Equity in Tech Month 2021

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