A Road to the Middle Class?

By: Peter Segall

03/26/2019

An article in the New York Times recently profiled a small nonprofit in Queens, NY, which trains low-income workers in coding and other skills important for the tech industry. “I believe tech can be a road to the middle class for large numbers of Americans,” Jukay Hsu, co-founder and CEO of Pursuit, told the Times. “But there’s real skepticism about that among people who see  the winners in technology as a small network of the privileged.”

With proper training, Hsu and his colleagues at Pursuit have sent people who were once working for minimum wage to jobs were they make close to, if not over, a hundred thousand dollars a year. Pursuit offers intensive training programs, the shortest is ten months, and carefully selects its students from among those who need it the most. Pursuit combs through hundreds of applications and chooses only those from low-income backgrounds. According to the Times, of Pursuits’ over 300 graduates,  roughly 85 percent land a job within a year with an average income of $85,000.

Tech and coding are touted by many as the new avenue to the middle class for workers of tomorrow. STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has become the new buzz-word in education and many schools have adopted a STEM-centered curriculum.

 

 

In Seattle, the Technology Access Foundation is a community school focusing on STEM education. Founded by a former Microsoft employee, Trish Millines Dziko, TAF takes special care to reach out to children of color, young women, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

MPC visited TAF for the Our Kids series. The traditional school model, what Millines Dziko refers to as the 1950s “cemetery rows” model, doesn’t teach children to succeed in the modern world. A teacher standing in front of a class, reciting information to children who do their best to retain what’s dictated to them doesn’t give kids the kinds of skills they need in life. “That’s not how we expect them to perform when they leave the school environment,” Millines Dziko said.

(For a list of broadcast dates for the Our Kids series, please visit our website)

 

“We expect them to solve problems. We expect them to learn a lot of different tools, apply those tools, to ideate, and to create. You can’t do that if someone is telling you exactly what to do, instead of inspiring kids.” Which is what TAF and other STEM-focused schools hope to do.

Indeed, tech jobs are on the rise. Automation may threaten millions of jobs in one sector, but create just as many if not more in others, some of which may not even exist yet. Having a skilled workforce is an important part of a healthy economy. Expanding skilled training to those who have traditionally been denied those kinds of jobs is an important step on the road to closing the opportunity gap.

But is this the road to the middle class its supporters claim it to be? Can the opportunity gap be closed by educating our students in the skills they need for the jobs of the future? The increase in costs of higher education has led many to suggest that technical education, beginning in high school or even earlier, should be promoted as a viable if not preferable alternative to a traditional four-year degree.

However, urging students toward certain sectors raises the specter of “tracking,” or prematurely selecting students for certain kinds of classes or professions based on their perceived abilities. Because of America’s history of racism, students of color have often been “tracked” away from academic degrees and towards less prestigious technical certifications because of administrators’ bias of students’ capabilities.

Supporters argue that STEM education provides an academically rigorous and diverse education that allows students wide latitude in choosing careers. Schools like TAF and Pursuit give preference to students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to combat the history of race-based tracking.

While updating education to reflect the needs of the current and future marketplace are important steps, some argue that the drivers of inequality over the past half-century have been less a lack of skills, but more a lack of stable employment, worker protections, and decent pay. According to OxFam America, many of the causes behind the rise in inequality can be attributed to the weakening of institutions which created the middle class in the first place.


Programs like Pursuit and TAF are doing important work, and expansion of these programs (which TAF has done and hopes to continue to do) are important changes in how we educate future generations.

We’d like to hear from you. What do you think about tech as a “road to the middle class?” What else needs to be done and where does this change need to come from? Let us know at mpc@mediapolicycenter.org

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