Amazon Should Support Growing Tech Talent in NYC High Schools

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New York City bent over backwards to successfully attract an Amazon headquarters to Long Island City which establishes the Big Apple as a major technology hub.  As we celebrate the promise of corporate investment, a rising housing market and high-paying jobs, everyone involved must not lose sight of the true bottom line.

New York City’s economy needs greater opportunity, not just more jobs.  Amazon must create a pathway for New York City junior high school, high school and community college students to participate in the digital economy.  There exists a wonderful opportunity for Amazon to engage New York City students (particularly the prospective first-generation college-bound) in the form of summer internships and innovative, progressive work experiences that get young people excited about technology careers – and, most importantly, gives them hope that good paying tech careers are indeed attainable.

Developing local talent makes sense because finding skilled talent is the biggest challenge for Amazon.  That’s why the company said it selected New York City in the first place.  There is a shortage of workers qualified for jobs titles like software coder, network engineer, database administrator and cloud architect.   So, what’s the point of New York government’s awarding massive tax breaks at an enormous cost to taxpayers if local city kids are systematically barred from aspiring to these coveted high-paying jobs?

What has gone unsaid so far by elected leaders is Amazon’s need to address, head on in New York City, the conundrum of the technology industry: the workforce does not look like the rest of America.  Nationwide, the industry is 75 percent male, 70 percent white and 20 percent Asian, according to major technology company reports of their racial and gender breakdown.  Clearly, the industry has no solutions to its diversity problem when there is such a dearth of jobs held by blacks, Hispanics and members of other underserved communities.

Expanding opportunity is a responsibility that must be top of mind for everyone involved.  It involves the rethinking of kindergarten through high school.  It involves computer science camps and field trips and work experience.  There was no mention of this reimagining career training in the celebratory statement and public comments by Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo and Amazon.  All the happy talk focused on the economic boost that comes with 25,000 jobs landing in Long Island City and the region over the next 12 years.  Since my days as Executive Director of the Youth Bureau in the Koch administration, public officials have simply not paid enough attention to linking public investment, young people and real careers.

There are efforts underway to find, develop and train talented individuals for the tech world.  For instance, Amazon announced earlier this month a program to offer free online lessons for kindergarten through 8th grade students; summer camps to help kids discover computer science; and funding of Introductory and Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes in 2,000 high schools in low-income communities across the country. The company also pledged the award of $10,000 annual college scholarships and paid summer internships to college students from underrepresented communities.

Internships for Junior High and High School Students

Locally, Amazon should partner with New York City to create a year-round internship programs for junior high and high school students.  New York City has been gradually shifting its publicly-funded Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) from one that seeks to keep kids off the streets to a more constructive effort to help young people develop the crucial skills they can only gain outside the classroom. 

In the summer of 2019, this will mean the first ever “school-based SYEP,” where students will get placed in jobs that connect to their year-round activities in school—a great advance for the program.  Amazon should reinvest a portion of the massive public subsidy it received by creating a new private sector matching program that eventually gets us to a universal high school summer internship program. 

CSS estimates that providing a paid internship to every high school student that seeks one will cost approximately $250 million per year. New York City has already invested $90 million of its own funds in summer jobs.  If Amazon matches that with $90 million of its own, and leverages its relationships to generate another $70 million, the company can take credit for leading the creation of the largest school improvement effort in our nation’s history.  And unlike other polarizing, political efforts (such as charter schools and vouchers) high school internships are supported by virtually all education stakeholders.

Such opportunities would allow high school students to explore the world of work in a way that would not only help them better know the labor market, but also provide a more concrete understanding about the types of higher education that they might seek in college and beyond.

Mayor de Blasio is moving in the right direction on summer jobs—but let’s see him use Amazon as a way to accelerate the pace of change. 

Issues Covered

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