A few weeks ago at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, 16 Minnesota ninth-graders sat in a conference room listening to an engineer named Shola Harrison talk about his pathway to getting a job in technology.
“I’m going to give it to you real,” he said. “No one outside your family, friends, and teachers care deeply about your success. You have to work hard and make things happen for yourself.” Harrison then laid out some steps the students should follow if they want to get a job in tech: take coding classes, scout out scholarships, and start your own clubs, to name a few.
It was good advice for anyone, but it was particularly important for these students — most of whom are black, Asian, or Latino, and many of whom are children of immigrants. They were there as part of a program my wife, Mary, and I started called Silicon North Stars, which takes a group of students from the Twin Cities to Silicon Valley every summer for a one-week technology camp, followed by regular meetups in the Twin Cities with local startups and technology leaders. Minority communities are chronically under-represented in technology, so Silicon North Stars seeks to close that gap by giving young people exposure to leaders like Harrison who’ve had success and can serve as role models.
The gap between whites and communities of color is bad everywhere, but it’s particularly bad in Minnesota. In the workforce overall, the wealth gap between white and black Minnesotans is the second worst of any state in the nation. U.S. Census data show most Minnesota families of color now have median incomes about half those of their white neighbors. The reasons for this gap have been widely debated, but the fact remains that for a state that prides itself on having a strong civic backbone, these statistics are embarrassing.
The good news is that there are tens of thousands of good jobs available in Minnesota right now — many of them in the fastest-growing sector of our economy: technology. According to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), we can expect a total of about 75,000 tech jobs that will need to be filled in Minnesota in the next decade. And the average computing job in Minnesota, according to Code.org, makes over $90,000 a year, compared to the average state salary of $51,000 a year. Yet many employers say they have big challenges in finding enough candidates with the right skills for these types of jobs.
So the jobs are there, but the candidates are not. This presents an opportunity to shrink our income gap while also strengthening our workforce, by better empowering underserved communities to join the technology sector. Here are five places to focus:
Start with young people. It’s never too early to start preparing for a career in tech. Yet there were only 59 high schools in our state that offered the AP computer science test in 2017, and of the 1,201 students who took it, just 87 were under-represented minorities. Minnesota should follow the lead of other states like Virginia and require all high schools to offer computer science, and create comprehensive K-12 computer science curriculum standards. To get there, we’d need to provide retraining programs for secondary school teachers — as well as expanding teacher preparation courses in the field and at Minnesota universities (in 2016, the U of M did not graduate a single new teacher prepared to teach computer science, according to Code.org). To ensure that students from under-represented groups connect this academic knowledge with the real world, we need to invest in programs outside of schools, too. The Minneapolis Step-Up program, an innovative city-run internship program that places more than 1,500 under-represented students in summer internships every year, should be expanded statewide, and should open a tech-specific track. Other programs that focus on teaching computer science to under-represented youth, like Reve Academy, should be expanded or replicated.
Focus on startups. Startups and small businesses are the lifeblood of our nation’s economy — creating a larger share of jobs than any other sector. Yet minority tech startup founders have a much harder time finding capital investment than white founders. Less than 1 percent of venture-capital-backed startup founders in the U.S. are black, and the Center for Global Policy Solutions reports that due to a bias toward companies primarily operated by white males, America is forgoing over 9 million potential jobs and $300 billion in collective national income. That’s just not right.
Minnesota used to have an Angel Tax Credit program that provided startup and small business investors with a refundable income tax credit equal to 25 percent of their investments up to $125,000, which led to an estimated $377 million in business investment, according to the Minnesota High Tech Association. The program should be reinstated, with a stipulation that at least one-third of the funding level go to minority-led companies. And we should also encourage the development of more tech accelerators like Lunar Startups, a new program in St. Paul that aims to provide minority-led tech companies with coaching, connections, and capital.
Empower our immigrants. For the last 15 years, Minnesota’s net population growth has been due entirely to immigration. We have loads of talent coming to the state: 14 percent of our immigrants hold advanced degrees, compared to 11 percent of the general population. Yet immigrants often face logistical and cultural hurdles to get hired. DEED’s Foreign Labor Unit has helpful resources for employers, and there are some agencies to help immigrants navigate the job process. But a more tailored and expansive effort at helping immigrants prepare for and find jobs in tech would be wise. Our immigrant communities are one of our biggest strengths in the state, and we need to do more to help maximize their talents in the technology workforce.
Expand midcareer job training. A big part of closing the income gap comes from job training, particularly at a time when technology is advancing so fast that jobs are changing by the year. We need more and better job training programs targeting underserved communities to ensure they can make career shifts. Tech bootcamps like Prime Digital Academy, which has placed 500 people in tech jobs in the last four years, or Summit Academy, which offers job training and accreditation (it recently added an IT track) to minority communities, are excellent examples. We should significantly increase funding on such initiatives — and encourage the development of more — if we’re going to make meaningful headway.
Of course, the best kind of job training happens on the job. So we should also incentivize employers to create tech job training programs for employees from under-represented backgrounds, perhaps by cutting payroll tax requirements for those who do. Additionally, we should double down on the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, a unique job training program that pairs private businesses with accredited colleges and universities to offer training grants that can range from $50,000 to $400,000. We should create stronger incentives for applicants to the program to invest in training focused on minority employees, preferencing a percentage of grants to companies that employ under-represented groups.
Invest in more research. The economic and demographic changes in our state are happening faster than ever before. One of our greatest strengths is the diversity of our state economy, but that also means that our technology economy isn’t a stand-alone industry, but integrated across several sectors. More research at the state and local level will better help us understand the nature of our opportunity, and new solutions to take advantage of economic growth and diversity.
A final point worth noting: When diverse groups are building the technology of the future, better products get made. One simple example comes from the company I work for, Google. When our engineers at YouTube were first creating our mobile video uploader, there weren’t any left-handed engineers on the team. So everyone was surprised when, during the first few days of release, the team was seeing thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube upside down. If we’d just had one left-hander on the team, we’d have seen that left-handed users hold their phones differently when shooting video, and avoided annoying our users. Simply put, when diverse teams build products, better products get made.
Empowering under-represented communities to find jobs in tech isn’t the only way to shrink Minnesota’s income gap, but it’s an important one with a lot of promise. Focusing on these five areas can strengthen the Minnesota economy in the 21st century, and make us a national leader in an area where we have a lot of catching up to do.
Steve Grove is the founding director of the Google News Lab and an International Security Fellow at New America. A native of Northfield, he and his family moved back to Minnesota from Silicon Valley earlier this year. Contact him at email@example.com.
Update: This commentary has been updated to cite DEED’s latest projections of the next decade’s tech jobs in Minnesota.
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