Unemployment among youth of color is widespread & complex; can a tech education startup change things?

The White House announced new participation in a jobs initiative yesterday from fast-growing technical education website Codecademy, as well as some venerable social justice oriented organizations Level Playing Field Institute and College Bound Brotherhood, a group dedicated to increasing the number of young African American men prepared for college. Called Summer Jobs +, the program aims to get young poor and marginalized people into paid technical training programs over Summer vacation.

It's an ambitious effort to tackle a very complicated problem. It's going to be a lot easier said than done.

A Big Problem

While the national unemployment rate remains high after years of recession and economic change, unemployment is even higher among African American youth (estimated at 40%) and Latino youth (estimated between 25% and 35%). "With youth unemployment nearly triple the overall rate and much higher among young Americans of color, attention to this problem is more than welcome," Roberto Viramontes, Vice President of Education Policy at the First Focus Campaign for Children, said in response to my request for comment on the Summer Jobs + program.

The decline of employment opportunities for unskilled workers in general has long lead to calls for youth training programs. Critics say the federal job training programs for young people have long been in need of modernization.

Anti-poverty advocates (none of whom I inquired with were anxious to say much on the record) emphasize that meaningful change requires more than just skill building in things like software coding. Some believe that in order to succeed such programs need to invest first in finding young people most likely to benefit from this kind of support. Then, after training is completed, programs must work directly on connecting newly trained young people with employers if they are to make a meaningful difference in people's lives. Will the Summer Jobs+ program include those kinds of steps? There was no mention of them in the program's announcement this week. It may take years of experience before a person can get a job coding, maybe this is just to get a taste of what's possible.

Other anti-poverty advocates say that technical skills like coding are not enough to provide the comprehensive preparation young people on the margins of society need in order to become meaningfully employed. Many young people need training on things like creating a good resume and dealing with difficult questions in an interview if they are to be prepared to remain in the workforce over the long term. That comprehensive set of skills is something that several organizations participating in the Summer Jobs + program are well-equipped to confer.

Can the amalgamation of organizations working to teach young poor people of color to code, pull this all off? The depth of need in the communities at issue is such that advocates say many programs in the past have seen their funding sucked dry with huge need remaining.

This is a very complicated, challenging problem.

Codecademy

Codecademy, the hip new web app that teaches its users basic coding skills and that will be an important part of this initiative, is one of many new education and personal change apps to emerge online in recent months.

Codecademy in particular has faced criticism lately concerning its ease of use. Specifically, some people have said that the site makes it difficult to know how to get back on track when a user has made a mistake in working on a lesson. I've experienced that on the site, too. Others say it still presumes too much knowledge of how computers work. The developer-centric community at Hacker News was very critical of Codecademy this week and the site's founders appeared in comments there to assure readers they were working to respond to issues raised.

In Codecademy's own announcement of the partnership with the White House and the other participants in the program, there was a conspicuous absence of any discussion regarding the race or class dynamics of the program. I raised this concern in a comment on the announcement post last night, but none of the comments posted have been responded to by Codecademy.

I'm concerned that failure to even mention that part of the program could indicate that the makers of the technical education materials aren't taking matters of race and class into much consideration. US Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra said the purpose of the program is "to provide pathways to employment for low-income and disconnected youth." Codecademy describes it simply as a program intended "to get more kids and adults learning to code."

You know what they say: those who ignore history risk repeating it. The Libertarian political leanings of so much of the tech industry puts programs like this at risk of ignoring the historic marginalization of certain segments of society and thus repeating it, as part of a faux-egalitarianism where blindness to difference effectively keeps the same people on top, in the end. I don't know any of the people involved in Codecademy, but I bet I'm not the only person who looked at its co-founders' Venture Capital backed, Ivy League educated, white boy resumes and their announcement about this program with no mention of race or class, with skepticism.

That the announcement of a White House partnership to train young poor people of color in coding shared a Codecademy blog post with an announcement of offline meetups of Codecademy users around the country and that the post called the meet-ups more important just seemed rude. ("...This will be a shorter course than Code Year that aims to teach people the basics of programming. You can find a bit more on the White House's blog. More importantly, we're pleased to announce that we're moving Codecademy from being a strictly online learning platform to something you can do offline as well.")

The politically questionable announcement of the partnership with the White House was a small paragraph surrounded by multiple paragraphs of rah-rah about Codecademy's hitting 1 million users (thanks to a year-end push and 1 hour of design work) and a list of tech industry luminaries' names getting dropped that the startup thanks for its success.

Paul Graham says that young people are often the only ones ignorant enough of how much hard boring work is involved with building a company that they are willing to do it. Simplistic youthful bravado may not be an asset though when the problem you're trying to tackle is the underemployment of poor young people of color.

It's a big initiative tackling a big, complicated problem, but it sure is important. I'm concerned about how well tech and politics will come together in this case, but we can all hope it will work out well and the world will be changed for the better.