In New York City, Reinventing Trade School for the Digital Age

Picture a room full of 28 New Yorkers, women and men, diverse in race and ethnicity, with two things in common. They're all scraping by financially. And nobody is a geek or a math wiz.
But together, they embarked on an intensive 22-week training program in computer programming. Now, four months after graduation, nearly all have full-time technology jobs, at an average salary of $70,000.
The free program, run by the private Flatiron School in conjunction with the New York City Department of Small Business Services, is more than a triumph for the fortunate few who participated. It's a promising model for building a pool of job-ready candidates to work as software developers, webmasters, and app makers — positions that employers are hungry to fill.
It's a strategy both to connect good jobs to the people who need them most, and to diversify the workforce of an industry facing mounting public criticism for hiring relatively few African Americans, Latinos, and women.
"This is as close to a win-win as you can get," said Van Jones, founder of Yes We Code, a national initiative to train low-opportunity youth for technology jobs.
Just two years old, the Flatiron School has drawn national attention and millions of dollars in venture capital as an innovative spin on vocational education. It teaches adults with no programming experience, many of them without college degrees, to write software code, and it helps place them in jobs. The ability to write code, the essential instructions for digital devices, is a golden ticket to jobs at tech start-ups, big computer firms, web consultancies, and pretty much every other employer that relies on web-based communications and applications.
"When you think of vocational schools, you think about plumbing, car mechanics, things like that. You don't usually think of the tech space," said Adam Enbar, Flatiron's co-founder and CEO.
Standard courses at Flatiron cost $12,000. As Enbar often points out, that's far less than four years of college tuition, yet it's out of reach for many low-income people. That's why city government contracted with Flatiron to offer no-cost training for residents earning less than $50,000 a year.
"It's a catapult of economic mobility," Enbar said.
More than 1,000 people applied for the NYC Web Development Fellowship. Twenty-eight were selected through a rigorous application and interview process focused not on standard measures like math scores, but on passion, creativity, and grit, Enbar said. More than half the participants were people of color and 57 percent were women. Ages ranged from 22 to 45.
With the first fellowship group out the door and working, the city and Flatiron have launched a second class, and last spring, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to expand the effort through what he's dubbed the Tech Talent Pipeline.
Combining city, state, federal, and private funding, the pipeline will distribute $10 million over three years to train a cross-section of New Yorkers in the technical skills that employers in the city need.
The pipeline is part of a broader plan to develop homegrown talent for the city's tech ecosystem, which provides 291,000 jobs and contributes $30 billion in wages to the city's economy. The plan calls for the city to:
  • invest in tech education for every child in the city and in expanded STEM programs at community colleges;
  • boost broadband in public housing and in neighborhoods without the highest-speed Internet connections;
  • expand free outdoor wi-fi in Harlem; and
  • increase the diversity of local tech firms through hiring goals for contractors and new procurement processes that help minority- and women-owned firms compete for city business.
Enbar believes the New York plan will reverberate far and wide as an example of leadership in strengthening the innovation economy by opening opportunities to all. "This will create so much awareness and urgency. It's going to make a massive difference."