Diversity & Inclusion
Career development / Coding / DEI / Digital access / Education

Skills training means access to tech careers. Amid COVID-19, how are workforce dev programs adapting?

While tech training organizations are shifting to meet students where they're at during the pandemic, questions remain as to what happens when underrepresented groups try to make progress in tech careers.

Design with accessibility in mind. (Photo by Cytonn Photography from Pexels)
When he was 8 years old, Myles Young enjoyed taking apart his mother’s computer. Over time he’s continued to experiment and learn more about what makes them work.

When applying to join the next cohort of IT training nonprofit Tech Impact, “I told the interviewers that I wanted to be with likeminded individuals to get different ideas,” he said. “It’s always been me trying to figure out what I wanted. I want to poke other people’s minds that have the same interest as me and get what their experience is like.”

While he’s worked with tech professionally before, Young hopes to receive more hands-on training at Tech Impact relative to working with computer hardware, as well as building new relationships with his peers.

Of course, he’ll also be navigating that training — and then hopefully applying that training to a career — virtually.

As we continue to navigate this pandemic-prompted recession, local workforce development organizations training people for tech careers are changing their playbooks.

While the tech industry as a whole has not suffered the significant job losses that other industries have, the orgs helping unemployed, underemployed and underrepresented groups gain access to well-paying jobs through skills training, professional development and certifications have had to change how they teach students who aren’t able to learn in-person for the time being.

Questions remain, too, as to how equitable that access to tech jobs may be for underrepresented groups, even with this training, amid systemic racism and mass layoffs that have disproportionately affected Black and brown workers. Technical.ly talked to a handful of local leaders in the workforce development space to find out how they’re adjusting.

Time to adapt

For Tech Impact Executive Director Patrick Callihan, helping his nonprofit adjust to the pandemic required quick thinking. After internal discussions, Tech Impact — which trains students in PC hardware, troubleshooting, IT networking and security to ultimately earn CompTIA A+ certification — moved its program online and took a week off to purchase the equipment necessarily to prepare for remote work.

Patrick Callihan. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Tech Impact’s spring program began in person before going virtual because of COVID-19, and the organization has plans to remain virtual in the fall. Callihan said that Tech Impact addressed access issues for students by issuing laptops to every student for the duration of their time in the program. For students without internet access at home, Tech Impact has also committed to paying for internet or cellular hotspots.

With so many companies shifting to virtual work for the indefinite future, Callihan believes Tech Impact’s virtual program is uniquely preparing students to fit in with the current status quo.

“Students benefited from [a virtual] environment in that for anyone getting a job in tech, odds are they will be remotely,” he said. “In some ways they learned how to do that themselves by attending this course online and working with instructors in online environments.”

New opportunities in the new normal

Young, the student in Tech Impact’s fall cohort, told Technical.ly he’s hoping to make the best of Tech Impact’s current virtual learning model.

“In high school, I started off as a virtual learning student,” he said. “It wasn’t really the right fit at the time, but as I’ve gotten older, you have to do what you have to do. I feel like it has gotten a lot better thanks to the technology, curriculum and the instructors that give the lessons. I feel like a lot has changed since then.”

From receiving his GED in 2018 to this June, Young worked as a mentor and computer and tech support liaison for Squashsmarts, an out-of-school time program for Philadelphia public school students.

During Young’s first year at Squashsmarts, a former colleague recommended that he get involved with Tech Impact, a program that helped her own career development. With the unpredictable state of the economy and the pandemic altering lives, Young saw now as the best time to explore opportunities with a skills training program.

Myles Young. (Photo via squashsmarts.org)

Anthony Hughes, CEO at coding bootcamp Tech Elevator, which launched a Philly location in 2019, also believes the pandemic presents opportunities for people to make progress in their careers. Tech Elevator moved its entire company online in response to COVID-19 and Hughes said that the early results looked promising: Tech Elevator has seen an increase in applications compared to this same time last year.

The CEO considers Tech Elevator accountable for its students’ future success. Many of its graduates previously worked as servers, baristas and in the gig economy for companies like Uber — all jobs that are less resilient to economic volatility, he said, compared to the software development Tech Elevator trains them to do.

“This is the opportunity right now that requires bold leadership in every certain path of that ecosystem, but particularly workforce development.” he said. “What can workforce development do to train more people to give them skills they need?”

According to Hughes, software and tech jobs are highly resilient in the face of COVID. He believes that workers in other industries have to reflect on whether or not they will seek opportunities to develop tech skills or take their professional chances in an economy with bleak prospects.

Hughes’ belief in tech skills training is buoyed by society’s increasing reliance upon technology during the pandemic to complete regular tasks like ordering groceries online.

“If you think about the world we’re going to enter into, nothing will ever be the same again,” he said. “There has been a seismic shift into a digital world.”

Race and the tech workforce

Sylvester Mobley does consider Coded By Kids, his nonprofit that offers young students software development skills, to be a workforce development program. Still, the founder and CEO hopes that such organizations can reflect in changing their approach to helping Black and brown students in the same way that he did when revising Coded By Kids’ model.

It’s not enough to give Black and brown kids the opportunity to work on technical projects, as he once believed. In considering the role that race plays in students’ advancement in technology, he shifted to the current model of supporting the project work with educational development and resources over time. Accordingly, he believes a fundamental error many workforce development programs commit is not taking race into consideration when trying to help their Black and brown students succeed.

“If you look at a lot of traditional workforce development programs and the salaries they target, you’re not moving [people] socioeconomically,” the founder said. “[A] $40,000 [salary] in the grand scheme of things is not a whole lot. You’re not moving people from one rung of the ladder to another. The metrics are you making $15 an hour, getting employed between 15 and 90 days and that’s [considered] success. That isn’t success to me.”

CEO Sylvester Mobley at Coded by Kids’ fifth anniversary celebration on Oct. 29, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Mobley believes that just getting underrepresented groups like Black and brown people entry-level jobs in tech doesn’t support long-term growth if they immediately hit obstacles impeding their career growth once they enter jobs. Most workforce development programs focus on weeks of training and certifications as opposed to equipping students with college degrees or opportunities to pursue them.

Mobley said that workforce development programs are a short-term solutions to broader systemic issues. When he first entered tech in 2001 and earned certifications, he said, he quickly saw how limited his career growth would be without a college degree. The experience made him pursue his bachelor’s degree and in the process taught him a lesson on the tech industry where, data suggests, even if Black and brown people have tech-related degrees, they still may not get the same opportunities as their non-Black and brown counterparts.

“We keep throwing short-term band-aids on problems and wonder why things aren’t changing,” he said. “With poverty in Philly we’ve been having the same conversation every year. You can’t solve a systemic issues around inequity with a short-term fix. If you push someone into a job that doesn’t have an opportunity for growth, you haven’t helped them.”

Looking ahead

Callihan hopes that Tech Impact students can use the skills they learn to become solid employees in a changing digital economy even after the pandemic is over.

“Even when the pandemic is over, many companies have gone on record to say they’ll have a digital workforce,” he said. “In some ways it will be an advantage to attract talent where they couldn’t before. Companies like Facebook are hiring people from remote areas like Philly.”

In order for Philadelphia to retain local tech talent, he said the city needs to continue to develop talent in an inclusive manner — and collaboration with organizations like Tech Impact will help further that goal.

Mobley hopes that workforce development organizations can reflect in changing their approach to helping Black and brown students.

“We need to rethink how we approach this,” he said. “According to McKinsey, Black people are concentrated in the highest jobs that can be replaced by automation. The jobs that are going to go away are the jobs we are concentrated in. We’re a majority Black city. No one has a plan for what happens next.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Tech Elevator / Coded by Kids / Tech Impact
Series: Journalism / Coronavirus

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