By Jamal Simmons
Jamal Simmons is co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance. His political commentary has been seen on several television networks.
For most of American history Black youth had ready-made jobs on farms or in factories. The professions became available for the lucky few. The jobs of today, however, are harder to find and harder to fill. Workers need more skills, and in the technology sector, African American youth aren’t keeping up.
The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be one million new jobs in computer technology and information services by 2022, but last year only three percent of AP Computer Science test-takers were African American. Taking the right classes to learn how to code and make digital products seems like the first step, but it’s not. The first step is igniting the passion in young people to think about digital careers at all, and showing them is better than telling them.
My parents piqued my interest in politics early, but I never knew there were paying jobs other than campaign manager and candidate until I met Kathy Neely, who led an advance team setting up events for Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign. A month later I was hired, and my life was changed. In those days, before broadband and reliable cell phone coverage, we had to drop dozens of phone lines for reporters to file stories, even once in a field outside of a picturesque Iowa farmhouse. Without the ability to email photos or video, each day we stuffed rolls of film and Beta video tapes into satchels, and handed those off to couriers who drove to the airport to Delta Dash them back to New York or Washington for the evening news and next day’s newspaper.
That feels like the Pony Express mail service in a world of Wi-Fi and cellular data plans.
Like my ignorance of political jobs, many African American youth have no idea that their adolescent interest in video games, computers and apps (they lead the market as consumers) could lead to a lifetime of fulfilling work. Creativity and innovation is like a natural resource for many of these young people. One principal in a tough urban neighborhood told me he had “8th graders struggling to read at 5th grade level, but they can design a pair of sneakers on their cell phones in 15 minutes.” Yet the dynamic world of Silicon Valley and digital careers can seem pretty far away from a modest neighborhood in Detroit or Atlanta.
Recently speaking to a classroom of college students in Columbus, GA, my tech talk was met with little enthusiasm until I started name-dropping. I told them about Chinedu Echeruo who recently sold HopStop to Apple, reportedly for $1 billion; Window Snyder, an African American woman who was chief of security for Mozilla and now works for Apple in a similar role; and David Drummond who is the General Counsel for Google and perhaps the most senior African American in Silicon Valley. They gasped audibly and sat up straighter.
Young people, like most adults, want three things: to make money, make friends and make a difference. For many black youth, the options for achieving those things can seem pretty limited. Once students believe that digital career options are real, we won’t have to convince them to take computer science classes. They will wait in line for the sign-up sheet to be posted.
Getting young people focused on digital careers means showing them the possibilities, not just telling them. Some students have parents with interesting jobs, mentors and specialty programs, but not every school has these resources. For them, digital learning can be an outlet. Students in Cleveland or Mobile don’t have to be confined by their location. The Internet is a portal to the world, if only students get access to the network.
Policymakers have a responsibility to make sure their interests are not snuffed out by slow connection speeds and long waits for computer access. President Obama is trying to help by committing $200 million with his ConnectED program and another $750 million from corporate partners like Apple, Microsoft and AT&T, an Internet Innovation Alliance member, the group I co-chair.
These kids need faster connections at home, too. Building that out will require billions of dollars more in private investment. The government can help by freeing up broadband providers from paying for antiquated telephone systems and invest instead in next-generation high-speed broadband networks the country needs.
Fixing these connection problems can change the world for these students and, in the process, we can refresh the gene pool of innovation with new creativity and talent.