My Fair Digital Economy?

November, 2016

I was a teenager when I watched ‘My Fair Lady’, and the main premise - of a cockney flower vendor getting elocution lessons from a professor to fit into high society - has always stuck in my mind.  I hadn’t given the movie much thought but was recently reminded of it hearing about second chances and career transformation stories in context to the tech world pushing the idea that you can secure a well-paying job by learning coding, regardless of your education background or work experience.

I started to wonder how realistic the idea is, to be able to teach someone not just coding but navigating the complex corporate world with its own rules and class structure.  In cinema, it mostly ends well for ‘Eliza Dolittle’ in ‘My Fair Lady’ and even for ‘Billy Ray Valentine’ in ‘Trading Places’ but can this romantic notion of training and learning a new skill be rewarded in our current competitive digital economy?

In the past few years I have noticed the rise of local non-profit groups to teach ‘at-risk youth’ and minority groups the fundamentals of coding (most times at a cost).  While I am encouraged by their altruistic endeavors, I also worry about the realities of what that knowledge will ultimately deliver.  Will it encourage them or assist them to pursue higher education? Will it provide access to an entry level tech job with further on-the job training? Will they find a mentor to guide them with their career challenges or personal shortcomings?  Will they feel like they belong with peers who may have had a more linear education and career path than theirs?

This sudden trend to train youth for the digital economy is fundamentally addressing the problem as identified by the White House: “Last year, there were more than 600,000 high-paying tech jobs across the United States that were unfilled, and by 2018, 51 percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in computer science-related fields….by some estimates, just one quarter of all the K-12 schools in the United States offer high-quality computer science with programming and coding and 22 states still do not allow it to count towards high school graduation”

Tech Education - State & Federal

Fortunately, Louisiana took up the President’s challenge to have ‘every American student have an opportunity to learn Computer Science’ and joined one of 12 states that now allows Computer Science to count towards high school graduation. Federal programs and initiatives further encourage states and businesses that are genuinely committed to addressing this challenge.  (Computer Science for All Initiative)

Tech Education – Free and Online

Tech companies are also showing an awareness of the problem and their commitment to addressing it by providing free and useful coding resources and reaching out to primary and high school aged students.  As a result, Facebook has launched TechPrep that allows a parent or a learner to select a programming path that can be customized according to age, knowledge level or career interest.  Google too has joined this format by creating Google CS First – an encouraging and valuable teaching or learning platform for students aged 9-14.

Non-Profit & Corporate Involvement

With the future somewhat secure, we are left with the current supply and demand problem for jobs in the digital economy.  This is being addressed, mostly by private companies and non-profits whose goal is to teach young adults who are unemployed or underemployed.  The tech world is also seeing this as an opportunity to reach out to minorities and females in an effort to address the lack of diversity in this field.   Bridging this gap between opportunities and skills is a serious endeavor for President Obama who 2 years ago launched ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ (MBK) which ‘is joining with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations who are taking important steps to connect young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job or go to college and work their way into the middle class.’

This non-profit offers a good example of a gestalt approach to second chances as it creates a support network made of volunteers, businesses and foundations that are dedicated to young men of color who feel marginalized by the system.  In a recent televised forum, the President introduced MBK mentors who were mentoring school aged boys in STEM education, as well as some older boys who had been in juvenile detention facilities.  It was inspiring to see the impact of this program when one of the mentees Devin Edwards gave a personal testimony of how he was ‘caught up in the streets and didn’t believe in second chances or better opportunities’ and said ‘MBK changed my life for the better’.  

Corporate Investment

The other elephant we have to address in the room - can someone without a college education get a place at the table with the prominently Ivy League tech crowd? Does a modern day Eliza Doolittle or Billy Ray Valentine have a chance in this niche and elite digital world?  In my research I have come across very few private enterprises that offer training with the offer of job placement at the end of successful course completion.   General Assembly (paid) and LaunchCode (free) are two such companies, which according to their website, offer both a learning platform and job opportunities. 

So here’s advice from someone who has landed (and still learning) in a digital economy almost accidentally and in a non-linear way.  Do your research, explore the free options offered by LaunchCode, TechPrep and/or Google CS First.   If you learn better within a structured environment, find out if the course you are paying for comes with accreditation or best case scenario, a paid apprenticeship that ends with a long term job placement.  In the meantime, build a website for yourself or for someone else so you can apply what you learn and develop a portfolio of your skills.  Remember that grit is key to your success because this is a long term learning commitment.  Follow these rules, and maybe your personal movie too will have a happy ending.


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