The Importance of Innovation in Economic Workforce Development

Last week in Pittsburgh Google announced a new initiative to help train Americans for jobs in technology, and committed $1 billion to nonprofits across the United States. Google’s philanthropic dollars were announced by Google CEO Sundar Pichai to an audience loaded with major players in workforce development as well as PA Governor Tom Wolf, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and PA House Speaker Mike Turzai. Coined “Grow with Google”, this $1 billion commitment will be a game changer for people short on skills in a rapidly digitizing economy. Google is one of the largest organizations to step up to the plate and their effort to help innovate economic workforce development is welcome.

It is no coincidence that Google chose Pittsburgh to announce its new initiative. Pittsburgh was the first American city that Pichai visited after arriving from India, 24 years ago. Pichai pointed out the historical relevance of Pittsburgh, a city that has successfully transitioned itself from steel to silicon:

I was here before the Internet really took off, but the city was already changing. The number of high-tech jobs had doubled and the pace of change has never slowed since. As a new arrival, I was homesick but struck by something new: the sense of optimism. I remain a technology optimist. Not because I believe in technology, but because I believe in people. At Google, our mission is to make sure that information serves everyone, not just a few. A child in a school here in Pittsburgh can access the same information on Google as a professor at Carnegie Mellon. In the end, the Internet is a powerful equalizer, capable of propelling new ideas and people forward (Pichai).

Connecting people with education and jobs is not new for Google. Google has donated over $11 million to Khan Academy, which provides free, world-class education and has over 59 million registered users. Part of Google’s $1 billion commitment is a $10 million partnership with Goodwill to launch a Digital Career Accelerator.

Two years ago, I was a stay-at-home Mom with average coding skills and a heart set on disrupting the home improvement industry. Employing the “Uber of X” methodology, I thought I could make the $347 billion home improvement industry a little more efficient, connecting homeowners with home service professionals with the press of a button.

I spent hundreds of hours interviewing home service professionals and testing assumptions. I brushed up on my iOS coding, using Khan Academy, and coded a functional app with a great UI. I completed an extensive amount of market research and conducted three rounds of AB Testing to narrow my product down to its perfect iteration. I was deeply embedded in the startup culture of trying to raise funds and solicit venture capitalists and I got accepted into Ascender, a tech accelerator in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I had a great idea and was ready to launch. But what I learned from Ascender is that successful startups do not chase ideas, they solve problems.

And the problem, more pressing than connecting homeowners with home service professionals, is the skills gap. Over the next ten years nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled but because of economic expansion and baby boomers retiring, over 2 million of those jobs are expected to go unfilled. This skills gap cost the average major manufacturing company an estimated $1 million each year. There are not enough skilled trade laborers in the United States and integrating technology or attempting to “Uberize” the industry is not the solution.

The CEO and COO of Ascender introduced me to dozens of economic workforce development professionals in Western Pennsylvania. I met with some of the country’s top technical instructors, many who have turned kids with low GPA’s into world class tradesmen. They were able to identify a curriculum that will help attract the next generation of skilled trade laborers.

Technical schools and Community Colleges have long been addressing the skills trade gap by compiling their traditional skilled trade programming into an ‘Advanced Technology Center’’ or ‘Advanced Manufacturing Department.’ Many schools have introduced classes on drone operation, coding and 3D printing to capture a younger audience, especially those in the maker movement. Universities have also joined the cause of educating people seeking a challenging career in the skilled trades and supporting manufacturing companies by providing a workforce skilled in the latest technology.

There are some tremendous marketing initiatives to try to lure High School students into the skilled trade sector. “Dream It. Do It. PA” is an effort by the Manufacturers Resource Center (MRC) to promote awareness of advanced manufacturing careers for students, adult family members, and educators. BOTSIQ is an educational robotics tournament aimed at introducing kids to a career in STEM. Thousands of manufacturing companies across the nation participate in “Manufacturing Day” in hope of inspiring the next generation of skilled workers. There are “Maker Faires” to celebrate the ‘do-it-yourself’ mindset.

However, the problem remains: there is a stigma against the skilled trades. But there are opportunities. Integrating tech and focusing on innovation, and rebranding careers in the skilled trade sector as jobs that require a technological knowhow, instead of blue collar or ‘dirty’ jobs.

There are numerous economic and workforce development strategies to help respond to current and future industry needs and capture the next generation of skilled trade laborers. Workforce development is an essential component of economic development and we are living in an economy that is increasingly driven by knowledge and innovation.