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A tech talent system cannot be built anywhere without the willing cooperation and engagement of employers, academia, government, thought leaders and the diverse voices of students and workers.

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The Philadelphia metro area—which also includes Camden and Wilmington—lost over 9,000 innovation sector jobs from 2005 to 2017 and has a bottom-scraping  -0.4 percent share of the nation’s innovation jobs.

Some metro areas will recognize Covid-19 as a generational opportunity to capitalize on the disruptions created by the pandemic and capture a fair share of future opportunities driven by tech careers.

While programs teaching digital literacy, coding or refurbishing computers are great and necessary, we could have more impact if all programs were part of a technology talent system: effective, user-friendly, data-driven, transparent and deeply collaborative.

And if we are intentional about diversity, as the tech sector is currently not diverse:

  • Only 20 percent of engineering grads and 16 percent of working engineers are women
  • 12 percent of Silicon Valley executives and 11 percent of the C-suites are women
  • 5 percent of venture capital leaders and 9 percent of partners are women

Leaders—not just mayors—need to set goals and measure progress across a 3-5-7-10 year horizon to garner a larger and more diverse pool of tech talent and thrive. Here are some action steps Philly leaders can take:

  • Increase Digital Access and Literacy
  • Create a K-12 Tech Coalition
  • Provide STEM College Scholarships
  • Increase Quality Apprenticeships
  • Improve Support Services

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Future-Proofing Work: Building A Tech Talent System

Other cities are capitalizing on the disruptions caused by the pandemic to rebrand themselves as innovation hubs. Can Philly do the same?

Future-Proofing Work: Building A Tech Talent System

Other cities are capitalizing on the disruptions caused by the pandemic to rebrand themselves as innovation hubs. Can Philly do the same?

Custom HaloWhat do you care about? Whatever it is, you probably measure it—a child’s growth, bank accounts, Fitbit steps or blood pressure; if we value it, we measure. There are endless examples of this across society.

Measuring what matters applies to public policy, too. One important policy measure is jobs. What kinds of jobs? What sectors? How are the wages? Job quality matters to me. Others agree and there is now a Job Quality Index. But, the news for the nation is not too good.

One way to ensure the growth of quality jobs is to nurture innovation industries by building a regional technology talent system. Economists from Brookings Institute, MIT Sloan and many others have tracked jobs across 13 “innovation industries.”

They uncovered disturbing trends of mega-star metro areas like San Francisco and Boston sucking up venture capital, talent and high-quality tech jobs. The “winner takes most” trends are likely a major cause of American political polarization, as well.

The Philadelphia metro area lost over 9,000 innovation sector jobs from 2005 to 2017 and has a bottom-scraping -0.4 percent share of the nation’s innovation jobs. “If we do nothing, our region will be left behind,” says Tracey Welson-Rossman of Chariot Solutions.

They looked at federal Research and Development funds going to local universities, the metro talent pipeline and current market share of innovation jobs, and more. Both Brookings and MIT Sloan have been sounding alarms and calling for another Sputnik moment to Jump Start America.

Cheat SheetThey call for large, sustained federal investments in science and technology so more regional economies can lay a foundation for inclusive economic opportunity. The economists also identify certain metro areas with potential to become tech hubs.

While this is just one set of data points and does not tell the whole story, spoiler alert: Philadelphia is currently not on the list.

Regardless, regional leaders should not wait for the federal government. They can lean in now. The Philadelphia metro area—which also includes Camden and Wilmington—lost over 9,000 innovation sector jobs from 2005 to 2017 and has a bottom-scraping -0.4 percent share of the nation’s innovation jobs.

“If we do nothing, our region will be left behind. It is evident from the pandemic, that a tech-enabled workforce is important for almost all companies and having this type of workforce makes it easier for companies to grow here,” says Tracey Welson-Rossman of Chariot Solutions.

In the nine years I taught history in Philadelphia public schools, nothing drove me more insane than a student wasting potential. Now, I understand, trauma was probably a culprit. It was frustrating, but I remained hopeful because my students were all still teenagers.

When it comes to the region’s potential as a tech hub, I feel the same frustration, but our tech scene is no teenager, which means our leaders do not have the luxury of time to waste.

While Philadelphia was recently named in the Top 100 Emerging start-up markets by Start-Up Genome, we seem stalled in “emerging” status. We could be in the Top 30 trailing the big dogs Silicon Valley, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle or San Jose.

Austin bumped themselves up not too long ago. I have visited Austin many times. Our airport, food scene, recreational trails, weather, proximity to the ocean, position on the East Coast, access to Europe and cultural attractions are all better here. We are also in a purple state and have more political clout nationally as a result. My point: Austin leaders made an intentional decision to build a tech hub and successfully folded it into their existing brand.

The future of work can be bright or grim, but either way it will have more gig workers. If we become a tech or freelancer mecca, the innovation rewards will be real.

Some metro areas will recognize Covid-19 as a generational opportunity to capitalize on the disruptions created by the pandemic and capture a fair share of future opportunities driven by tech careers. They will build a technology talent system modeled after successful ones all over the country, from New York City to Salt Lake City, Louisville, Kentucky, even Jacksonville, Tennessee. In our own commuter region, Delaware just launched one.

A technology talent system is different from a collection of programs. While programs teaching digital literacy, coding or refurbishing computers are great and necessary, we could have more impact if all programs were part of a technology talent system: effective, user-friendly, data-driven, transparent and deeply collaborative. Employers, government, academia, foundations trainees, mentors, recruiters and instructors need to continually work together to keep training and degree programs up to date by tracking results.

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with big data expert Shaun Connolly. Connolly was born in Philly, raised in South Jersey, is a Drexel grad and recently moved to Center City.

Do SomethingHe regularly works in Silicon Valley and now has the luxury of advising young, select tech companies on strategy. He started our conversation with rapid-fire statistics reflecting tech’s “unacceptable and acute diversity problem.” He pointed out that when America went to the moon, there were all-female, largely unheralded teams of coders vital to the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Today:

  • Only 20 percent of engineering grads and 16 percent of working engineers are women
  • 12 percent of Silicon Valley executives and 11 percent of the C-suites are women
  • 5 percent of venture capital leaders and 9 percent of partners are women

More on gender inequity here and racial inequity here and here.

Immersed in big data analytics for a decade, Connolly knows firsthand the huge opportunities to improve lives with artificial intelligence. Big data applications can save years and months of time for a fraction of the costs in many fields. These new industries need homes near a steady supply of talented tech workers.

“We can have a diverse tech workforce,” he says. “There will be tons of roles creating tech and communicating the impact of technology. Last year, automation and artificial intelligence disruptions were believed to require 10 years to fully arrive. With the pandemic, this is no longer the case. It will take significantly less time to arrive at tipping points in how work gets done across many industries.”

A tech talent system cannot be built anywhere without the willing cooperation and engagement of employers, academia, government, thought leaders and the diverse voices of students and workers.

Not every region in the U.S. has the basic ingredients to build a technology talent system. For regions like Philadelphia, who have the assets, we need to commit and execute. Here are segments of the pipeline in need of a multi-year strategy.

Leaders—not just mayors—need to set goals and measure progress across a 3-5-7-10 year horizon. If we do this, we will have a larger pool of tech talent and thrive. If we do not, we will continue to lose more quality jobs.

  • Increase Digital Access and Literacy: Since 2005, with Mayor Street’s effort Wireless Philadelphia, we have failed to solve this problem. Now, school children are bearing the brunt because efforts are scattered and underfunded. The Digital Literacy Alliance spreads small amounts of corporate grants to programs but outcomes are not tracked. Technology Learning Collaborative is full of experts, practitioners and is an affiliate of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. NDIA is often at odds on policy with major internet providers. Let’s build a coordinated strategy with agreed upon goals and sufficient funding. How about each commercial corridor has a community co-working space that has free wi-fi and digital skills classes? There is going to be vacant retail and 67 percent of people lack digital skills.
  • Create a K-12 Tech Coalition: Science, math and technology education need more attention in the U.S. Locally, we can gather education technology leaders and directors of existing technology programs for students. Ask these experts to create a regional strategic plan together, This is tied to national issues, but we cannot wait for solutions to come from on high. The lack of students proficient in science and math is a threat to our economy and national security. We are wasting so much potential and letting the next Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson slip away. Meanwhile, “work from anywhere” makes it easier for more highly-skilled students and workers to eat our lunch from abroad.
  • Provide STEM College Scholarships: Community colleges, universities and employers need to work together and ensure more science, technology, engineering and math majors get to and through college and retained here. Scholarships, internships and especially structured cooperation between universities and industries, like Drexel has been doing for decades, needs to be the norm. The whole nation needs more tech majors to meet the massive shortages in workers skilled with software, hardware, systems, cybersecurity, data management and many more. If we as a region became focused on repairing the broken pipeline into colleges, we would also help diversify the sector and ensure more access to quality jobs and the high-demand tech roles.
  • Increase Quality Apprenticeships : Technology across industries is advancing faster than most academic institutions can keep up. Various bridge and Read Moreapprenticeship programs can fill gaps for talent to get ready for high demand jobs. Jobs for the Future just released a report outlining the landscape and best practices for tech training programs. There are too many low-impact programs. The tech talent system cannot ask companies to make charity hires, or waste time and money. No person or taxpayer should pay for training for training’s sake. A great start would be better data: transparent outcomes data and job placement results so we can understand where we are now and map a course to where the job training system needs to go.
  • Improve Support Services: Many programs take longer than unemployment benefits last. And, we should not wait for people to become unemployed to support a career pivot. No offense, Microsoft, but people need more than free online tech courses to develop talent. People need quality instructors, a learning community, perhaps childcare and transportation solutions. These supports are a smart use of public dollars in a city where 60% of households with children under 5 are led by single-parents.
  • Why not Greater Philadelphia? Economists being economists, they do not measure human behavior variables about where people want to live. We have great healthcare, a strong creative economy, four-season weather, attractive logistics, pedestrian living, a top-notch food scene and housing affordability.

Post-pandemic, with “work from anywhere” more likely, tech workers might be looking for a new, high-value place to call home. Why not marketing and incentives for tech workers and creatives? The future of work can be bright or grim, but either way it will have more gig workers. If we become a tech or freelancer mecca, the innovation rewards will be real.

In order to execute a strategic vision, and to paraphrase Connolly, leaders need to embrace the fact that innovation happens best with open collaboration. In tech, Open Source drives innovations by sharing designs and courageously posting work for tweaks and feedback. It is the shortest path to the best advancements. The next generation of tech workers understand this and a wider embrace of Open Source in tech is inevitable.

Likewise, transparency and an open source approach needs to flow into regional political and civic power dynamics. When we move away from a clubby approach to power dynamics, we can build our unique tech hub and a larger talent pool.

A tech talent system cannot be built anywhere without the willing cooperation and engagement of employers, academia, government, thought leaders and the diverse voices of students and workers. We need a crowdsourced, co-designed approach to many things. But we need a tech talent system right now with shared costs, good data, strong outcomes and transparent decision-making. Yes, systemic collaboration is more work on top of running a university, government or business. It is not easy, but it is urgent.


Anne Gemmell is the founder of Future Works Strategy, a consulting business focused on future-proofing. She is the former director of Special Initiatives in the City of Philadelphia Office of Workforce Development, where she was responsible for creating strategic plans focusing on emerging technologies, their effects on talent pipelines and actions for “future-proofing” our local economy. A longtime policy strategist, she also worked with the Kenney administration on the equitable design, advocacy and successful funding of the PHL PreK program. 

Photo by Elevated Angles / Visit Philadelphia

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