Editor's Note: This piece was written by Jeff Mazur, executive director for LaunchCode. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Smart Cities Dive's views.
To want a strong economy is a no-brainer, but such a luxury doesn’t come with a single snap of a hand or passing of a bill. Success always comes at a price; in this case, rapid economic growth in cities is commonly associated with an increased level of income inequality. As the economy grows overall, in other words, those with higher incomes thrive while those with lower incomes remain stagnant — and eventually fall behind.
While this would seem to negatively affect only those living on the lower end of the economic spectrum, a 2017 study by the Urban Institute illustrates that a bigger economic gap between a city’s wealthiest citizens and its most impoverished ones can result in consequences for everyone.
Economic gaps are, in large part, a product of unevenly distributed opportunities. Some individuals are brought up in an environment where pursuing higher education is a baseline expectation, while for others this idea is completely foreign. There are clear correlations between education and income level, so it’s not hard to deduce how differences in access to education create a widening gap.
Some of the effects of economic segregation on people with lower income levels aren’t surprising. In highly segregated regions, overall incomes are lower for the poorest members of the community than they would otherwise be in a more economically integrated area. Simply put, that means some thrive without worry while others enter a cycle of struggling to make ends meet and not being able to save for the future.
But other consequences, just as damaging, lie below the surface. What’s less obvious is the fact that highly segregated areas are prone to becoming less innovative over time, likely due to the disempowerment and hopelessness of the disadvantaged residents. Such a stratification affects everyone by destabilizing the economic and social communities on which everyone relies for long-term security; all parties — businesses, citizens, nongovernmental organizations, and the government — have incentive to work toward closing these gaps.
Keeping an open mind about narrow gaps
It would be remiss to suggest gaps in income can be solved easily or quickly. Not only have these disparities existed and widened for decades (with roots even older than that), but there are also a number of complex factors related to income gaps, including a region’s public education, history of inflation, and government programs — not to mention advancements in business, technology, and society overall.
Additionally, addressing such a behemoth issue requires a number of parties from both the public and private sector to cooperate, which, even when everyone shares the same goals, can sometimes feel like herding cats (and it’s not always the case that everyone shares the same goals).
But it would be equally foolish to suggest these barriers make economic gaps a problem not worth solving.
One approach involves creating strong training programs to develop workers into more skilled candidates. Think about it — if a region’s rate of growth outpaces its population’s eligibility for employment, one solution is to devise a way to make those individuals more eligible.
Where tech comes in
Investments in training and workforce development are key for cities to shrink the economic gap, but what makes these investments fruitful?
Three major indicators of success exist. One prerequisite for success is that learning programs need to be targeted to meet employers’ specific skills needs; a program may be effective in training, but if the training doesn’t pertain to the needs a gap poses, it will never be successful. The success of such programs also hinges on the training being accelerated. We’re talking about fixing an issue related to rapid growth, so the solution needs to be equally speedy. And finally, truly successful programs will be widely accessible and cost-effective. It’s counterintuitive to have inconvenient or expensive training programs that aim to educate lower-income individuals.
That’s what makes tech an industry with so much potential to help close cities’ economic gaps. For one, jobs in the technology sector are increasingly in high demand. Of the 6.1 million job openings in the United States as of September 2017, 700,000 were in the technology space — 11% of jobs in just one industry. And current predictions posit that number will reach 1 million by 2020.
The growing demand for tech jobs represents a key part of their potential to reduce income inequality, but another essential element is their ability to fit nicely into accelerated training models. Typical career pathways might require two years or four years of study to earn a degree, but neither employers nor people on the short end of the economic gap can afford to wait that long. But accelerated tech training provides a quicker path to opportunity by getting students job-ready in six months. As an added benefit, these programs yield the most immediate results as far as narrowing the skills gap.
Tech skills begin with some formal education but lend themselves to self-learning once a person has a fundamental understanding of certain principles; i.e., once you understand how to analyze and read code in general, it’s easy to pick up new programming languages. Students in accelerated tech programs can readily take the basics and reach a much higher potential without years and years of classes.
And not only does this matter from a socioeconomic standpoint, but businesses also have incentive to make haste; the hiring process is quite costly to businesses — they lose an average of $407 each day a position goes unfilled, according to a 2015 CEB study. In light of those numbers, accelerated programs make even more sense.
Then there’s cost-effectiveness and accessibility. Training opportunities already abound for people with resources, but delivering the same high-quality training for free or at a greatly reduced cost is paramount to an effective program. Besides lowering the upfront cost, making training available part time or on weekends for those with other work obligations is key to maximizing impact. Tech education checks these boxes, too — the amount of resources available for free or at a low cost online make creating a formal training program more cost-effective and available for all parties, putting a new skill set well within reach for individuals with lower incomes.
There’s no one magic bullet to solve an income gap, and historic inequalities in opportunity can’t be eliminated overnight. Still, cities can adopt strategies to level the field by supporting accessible training programs — and tech is ripe for the picking in more ways than one.