Chicago tech training and STEM education get a boost to focus on the underserved

BY SANDRA GUY

sandraguykolina@gmail.com

A Chicago Public high school known for helping students get valuable technology internships is getting crowdfunding help from Chicago’s tech leaders and entrepreneurs.

Business-software review firm G2Crowd is spearheading the effort by asking its users to write a review in exchange for a $10 contribution. The initiative, launched on Aug. 1, has raised $5,000. The goal is to collect 10,000 reviews and raise $100,000.

Why the creative online funding campaign?

Because the school, Chicago Technology Academy or ChiTech, faces a $450,000 budget shortfall. The dilemma resonated with the city’s technorati, who struggle with a talent shortfall, particularly in finding young people from distressed inner-city neighborhoods with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

The funding gap results from the difference between the true cost to educate a ChiTech student -- $14,000 – and the $10,275 per student that Chicago Public Schools and the state and federal governments allocate, the fundraising advocates say.

G2Crowd started the fundraising campaign largely because it’s part of the firm’s mission to build opportunities for young people to train for technology and STEM careers, and to keep them here in Chicago, said Adrienne Weissman, G2Crowd’s chief customer and growth officer. Weissman has held a variety of sales, advertising-account and innovation-leader roles at AOL, Google and LinkedIn and at Starz and Showtime networks.

“We’re trying to hone in on a school that helps students who may not come from a background where they’ve gotten the financial and individual support to succeed,” said Weissman.

The goal to raise money for scholarships and to keep the school’s programs running is driven by concern that middle America is disappearing as the gap between the haves and have-nots keeps growing, she said.

“We are disruptors by nature,” Weissman said. “We’re at a place where we’re trying solve problems by employing a more diverse group of people in an environment that tends to be mostly white males.”

“It feels really good to drive, lead and impact change in a big way, and improve the conversation around diversity in tech,” Weissman said.

The school’s 300 students comprise 76 percent African-American, 19 percent Latino and 3 percent white, with 91 percent qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. Students attend from 38 zip codes throughout the city.

The issue is a national and increasingly dire one.

The U.S. Labor Department predicts that technology jobs will grow faster than the average for all jobs at a rate of 12 percent this decade, with some of the most in-demand jobs for computer systems analyst, software developer, and database administrator, according to U.S. News and World Report.

In response to that demand, students and those looking to change careers can now access a new organization, the CompTIA's Association of Information Technology Professionals to help develop this workforce.

By offering TechTalent as a clearinghouse for technology jobs, the search engine includes detailed data on market demand for specific skills employers are looking for, as well as access to more than 1,200 online courses through a partnership with Lynda.com.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers and North America's Building Trades Unions is teaming up to promote apprenticeships to distribute information to high-school guidance counselors to advance technical education.

With an expected expansion of infrastructure projects, apprenticeship opportunities offered by trade sectors offer lesson plans to help students build their careers toward high-quality jobs.