The STEM Jobs Gap and Minority Youth Engagement

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A #YesWeCode hack-a-thon event in Philadelphia, November 2014.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as many as 1.4 million new computer science jobs could soon be available in the United States, but only 400,000 students will be enrolled in such programs at the nation’s universities. This disparity is often referred to as the STEM gap. Only 1 out of 10 high schools in the U.S. offer computer science programs. And, in a sign that the national education system is far from modernized to meet the demands of the 21st century economy, 25 states still do not even allow computer science classes to count toward high school graduation.

Computer science-related jobs are growing at twice the national average, but there is a huge gap between STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related jobs and the number of young people who are studying to qualify for them. And this gap is hitting urban and minority students much harder than other populations. Expanding STEM education  opportunities in minority communities is one key to helping young people rise out of poverty and filling the job gap.

To that end, #YesWeCode, a joint partnership of Dream Corps Unlimited and Thrive Networks, advocates for STEM inclusion and wider access to computer science education across the country. Co-founded by Van Jones, Amy Henderson and Cheryl Contee, the nonprofit ties technology and social justice together, and emphasizes the expansion of computer science education for urban and at-risk youth.

Established last summer, #YesWeCode already has a bevy of corporate partners, including Facebook, Ford Motor Co., Google and Comcast. Its overall mission is to act as a “catalyzer and connector,” and lead in raising awareness about computer science education among students. Part of the organization’s agenda involves a robust schedule of hack-a-thons. The most recent event, which took place in Detroit, aimed to reach students with latent skills but who otherwise would not consider a career in computer programing.

“Detroit has a reputation as a ‘bankrupt’ city, but its renaissance is driving a growth in technology,” says Michael Nobleza, deputy director of #YesWeCode. “I was inspired by the resilience that the city is showing.”

Nobleza was also inspired by watching students work together with Google engineers and developers “during this weekend of pure science.” He added, “[I] hope that these kids can achieve their dreams and capitalize on future opportunities.”

The Detroit hackathon was typical of the social enterprise events #YesWeCode has organized in order to share the opportunities of coding that usually bypass too many students. Although it’s often self-promoted as being a “diverse” industry, Silicon Valley and the tech sector still have a reputation for being overly white — and the same goes for the venture capital world that supplies the funding often needed to get these companies off the ground. By teaming students with mentors from the corporate partners, #YesWeCode aims to bring this industry alive to students and showcase the excitement of coding.

At Ford’s Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit, dozens of middle school students from five metro Detroit middle schools competed for US$30,000 in prizes. The winning project was a mobile app designed to improve communications between parents and schools. These hackathons are not just about computer programming, however: Students also had to pitch their projects in a “Shark Tank” style format to a judging panel, giving competitors a a taste of how start-ups get funded in general.

As part of #YesWeCode’s goal of training 100,000 minority coders, the organization also works with schools to expand computer science education opportunities. One of the most ambitious projects is the NYC Web Development Fellowship, which partners with the Flatiron School in Brooklyn to run an intensive 22-week fellowship designed to train New Yorkers in the skills necessary to launch a career in Web development.

#YesWeCode plans to work with more corporate partners to raise the millions of dollars needed to fund fellowships like that of the Flatiron School, Nobleza says. Programs like this are important, says Nobleza, “because first, there are so many existing programs like that of the Flatiron School that are doing great work to fill the education gap, but just needed exposure. And second, they need to be connected, and that is where #YesWeCode comes in.”

More is planned in the coming months as #YesWeCode seeks youth hungry for renewed opportunities, whether they are students who did not complete college or lack the technical skills to enter the ever-changing job market.

This July the organization will sponsor the second annual hackathon at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, which again will connect young programmers and mentors from the business world.

While the U.S economy is on the mend, the improvements still have not necessarily trickled down to the youngest workers. Youth unemployment hovers around 12 percent, even when many good-paying jobs remain unfilled. Boosting computer science education is one way to boost the prospects of young adults who are often connected to technology, but not necessarily connected to the job opportunities that technology can offer.

Image credit: #YesWeCode

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).