Narrowing the equity gap in Chicago’s tech sector

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (center) announces Kennedy-King College’s new Tech Launchpad, which is part of an effort to grow and diversify the city's technology workforce. (Photo: City Colleges of Chicago)

Kennedy-King College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, is launching a new program to provide local technology companies with a more diverse workforce.

Tech Launchpad will offer courses and short-term certification classes in cybersecurity, software development and game design and development.

At an event last week with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, World Business Chicago — the city’s public-private economic development agency — announced that City Colleges would be the newest anchor partner for its ThinkChicago program designed to attract and retain STEM talent in the city. The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership will assist eligible Launchpad participants by covering training costs and contacting employers searching to build a talent pipeline.

“We are bringing an array of resources to bear to connect employers with motivated Chicagoans to fuel a growing and inclusive tech economy,” Lightfoot said at the event. “City Colleges’ investment in Kennedy-King’s Tech Launchpad makes technology education accessible and affordable to all Chicagoans. Combined with the contributions of our city and county workforce partners, we are building equitable paths of entry into lucrative tech careers.”

The Tech Launchpad and other related city and county efforts are driven by two imperatives: social equity and workforce equity. According to an environmental scan by Northern Illinois University, 23% of residents living in the neighborhoods surrounding Kennedy-King College lack access to a computer, and another 14% with a computer lack internet service. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that women, Black, and Latinx professionals are underrepresented in the information technology industry. For example, among U.S. software developers, just 3.9% are Black, 5.3% are Latinx and 19% are female.

Part of a broader strategy

The Tech Launchpad is part of a regional workforce strategy and a key component of the Chicago’s Forward Together plan, which is billed as the first Covid recovery effort of a major U.S. city. The Tech Launchpad is centered at a new IT training lab on the Kennedy-King College campus in Englewood. The 1,500-square-feet, $840,000 training lab includes 20 advanced graphics computers, modularized workstations for independent and small group collaboration, network server racks for instruction, and space for game development.

“The Launchpad offers a young person growing up on the South Side who loves video games the chance to learn how to design those games and it offers parents who care about keeping their kids safe online the chance to pursue their own careers in cybersecurity, close to home and at low to no cost,” President Gregory Thomas said in a release. “Our knowledgeable faculty and supportive staff, combined with the industry insights of our corporate IT partners, will help ensure Kennedy-King becomes the educational home for the tech-curious and tech passionate alike.”

Kennedy-King College is an approved training academy for Fortinet, Amazon and Cisco and partners with companies including Google, Apple, Cisco and SDI Presence for customized training and tech boot camps.

New and forthcoming credit programs include: a cybersecurity AAS degree and certificates, a game design AAS degree, and software development, all launching this fall. A web development AAS degree and certificates, and a networking systems AAS degree and certificates will come online in fall 2022.

A commitment to tackle inequity

SDI Presence has made a $1 million gift to Kennedy-King College to support the Tech LaunchPad and support its efforts to increase equity in the tech field. In addition, it has provided more than 20 City Colleges students with work-based learning experiences in the technology field.

“We are also committed to the goal of addressing inequity in the tech sector and are all-in as a partner to City Colleges in preparing Chicago students for tech careers,” said David Gupta, founder and CEO of SDI Presence.

As the newest anchor partner for ThinkChicago, Chicago’s STEM talent attraction and retention effort, City Colleges join fellow anchor partners, which include the city of Chicago and the University of Illinois System. ThinkChicago will continue to expand student immersion events and create a new dedicated program track for students to explore career opportunities within the city’s tech and innovation ecosystem.

The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, a longtime partner of City Colleges, offers federally funded tuition vouchers (individual training accounts) for students seeking training and professional credentials in a variety of sectors.

“The Partnership specializes in advancing career pathway opportunities for this region’s high growth, high-demand sectors, including information technology,” said Karin M. Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Partnership. “We partner with a variety of small and large employers with IT needs and ensure they have access to a robust diverse pipeline of talented. This new Tech Launchpad, and its focus on expanding equity in this workforce sector, is an important addition to IT training opportunities in Chicago and aligns beautifully with our efforts.”

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