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Training and Development

Will Obama's TechHire lead to more tech workers?

In early March the Obama administration announced its new TechHire initiative, a scheme tasked at driving up employment in the tech sector and growing job salaries in this area. Hundreds of employers across the country along with several local and state governments are involved.

“Right now America has more open jobs than at any point since 2001 and more than half a million openings are in tech,” said Obama at a press event after the initiative’s launch, but there is a noticeable skills gap.

“Tech jobs pay one and a half times the average private sector wage so they’re great pathways to the middle class,” he said, adding that scheme would help the growing economy from stalling. It is also important, the administration says, to provide training for young people before cutting taxes for the rich.

TechHire has been largely well received by those involved and by the tech industry but at this early stage of the program it remains difficult to gauge just how effective this new training will be.

One of the regions to really benefit thus far from the TechHire program and the growing focus on tech careers is Louisville, Kentucky. Generally, when someone mentions tech innovation and careers, they tend to think of Silicon Valley or other high profile areas like New York City, Silicon Alley in particular. Several cities and states in the US want to stand up and be counted too but face several challenges in doing so.

Code Louisville was set up by Rider Rodriguez to offer coding classes to teens in the city. It started over a year ago to upskill people for starting a career as a developer and recently received a grant of from the Department of Labor of nearly $3m. “That’s the big expansion,” Rodriguez tells IDG Connect. “As a result of that, we managed to get involved in the TechHire initiative, which brings more exposure and more access to other people in the field and access from companies for donating data and services.”

Code Louisville is now working with a local community college to provide college credit for the work that students do in the workshops.

“It’s been kind of a continuous improvement thing. When we first went into it we had a hypothesis. In general we’ve proven it, that you can give somebody the skills that they need.”

TechHire may help more cities emerge as techy hubs when they would otherwise be left behind. Austin, Texas for example has been a burgeoning tech city for many years but San Antonio, the state’s seventh biggest city, will be the only city in Texas taking part. According to the Linux recruitment firm TrueAbility in the city, the training programs will be invaluable for students. “In six weeks they can come out with some really good programming skills, and 90% of these people are hired within three months of finishing the program,” said the company’s co-founder Frederick Mendler.

Just how quickly someone emerging from one of these TechHire training programs can secure employment remains to be seen though as the numbers fluctuate.

“We’ve been able to get 21 people jobs but we’re going to be targeting, over the life of a grant for the next few years, a total of 850 people trained and placed,” says Rodriguez on Louisville’s ambitious plan for growth. “We’re going to be scaling up dramatically. Initially, we’re proving the concept and now we’re really trying to scale up.”

Chattanooga is another city that’s on the rise, namely due to its famous gigabyte internet. It too will be taking part in TechHire by partnering with Tennessean insurance companies Unum and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee.

Nick Wilkinson, the city’s director of economic development, claimed in March that tech jobs pay 50% more than other positions. “We need coders, we need IT professionals,” said Wilkinson. Despite the city’s growing tech reputation, it still needs skilled employees to make it all work.

TechHire is not without its critics either. Minnesota is also among the many cities involved and will see IT boot camps launched to train students but as an editorial in the Minnesota Daily points out, the training will be minimal. It will provide “the minimum amount of programming knowledge needed,” according to one source, and this could place TechHire participants at a noticeable disadvantage compared with university-educated IT workers and raises the question of whether TechHire students will actually be competitive.

Rider Rodriguez concedes that the typical 12-week coding classes may not be enough in some cases. “It’s learnable, it’s just a lot to learn. It’s a difficult skill but if you apply yourself, you can learn it but it may take a little bit longer. We’ve been continually trying to improve it.”

Overcoming the challenges of the first year of the scheme will likely determine if its success will last in the long term. Rodriguez explains that collaboration between cities will be key.

“We’re in this with New York, Philadelphia and all sorts of big massive global cities that we’re going to be able to learn from each other,” he says. “There’s things we’re going to learn from New York and hopefully we can do enough interesting things and viable things that New York can learn from us too.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway for a city participating in TechHire is that there will not be one result across the country despite Obama’s best intentions to train as many people as possible for careers in tech.

“I don’t think there’s going to be unified [results], and that’s really for the administration to say,” says Rodriguez. “It looks like it’s going to be unique to each particular locale based on whatever the unique local circumstances are but with enough support from big national players, you can actually accomplish big things wherever you are.”

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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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