Commentary: Match promise of IT with city job growth

Friday, April 29, 2016

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Commentary: Match promise of IT with city job growth

​The presidential primary caravan has pulled out of town, but the election is far from over. After the bruising primary season winds down, the candidates must navigate the national conventions, more debates, and, finally, Election Day.

Along the way, we will continue to hear more about economic growth and job creation. As economic access and inclusion are increasingly part of the national conversation, it will be important for candidates to recognize that technology offers an opportunity to significantly narrow the widening gap of inequality.

Tech job creation in both the private and public sectors has skyrocketed in the last eight years. Instead of bulls and bears, we have been talking about unicorns and gazelles. Companies like Amazon have expanded into small cities, and Google and Apple have tripled in size.

This growth is not isolated in Silicon Valley and Boston; Philadelphia is experiencing a tech boom as well. Our region has claimed more than 6,000 IT-based companies during the last five years - from large operations like Comcast to smaller, newer firms such as Arcweb Technologies, Curalate, and Seer Interactive. All provide well-paying jobs to a growing population of tech-savvy millennials.

The University City Science Center has been a key catalyst, working with many of our region's scientists and entrepreneurs to help turn bright ideas into successful companies.

The promise of technology creates new opportunities for workforce development. In West Philadelphia alone, University City District counts 75,000 jobs within its boundaries. These include well-paying, family-sustaining jobs at renowned institutions like the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The next step is to make more of these valuable jobs accessible to all Philadelphians regardless of zip code.

It's time for the government, tech companies, and supporting organizations to jointly emphasize workforce development with a focus not just on training, but on providing real access to new jobs in the innovation ecosystem. Fortunately, progress is underway.

The federal government is working to encourage growth in underserved communities, designating much of West Philadelphia a "Promise Zone" that will bring innovation and growth to an area with a poverty rate of 51 percent. And the White House wants the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other federal agencies to promote more access and inclusion by developing new programs to drive greater diversity in science and technology.

Locally, programs like the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative are helping businesses and labor adapt to the new economy, training and connecting unemployed residents to jobs in the health-care and IT sectors. The state is offering tax credits and other support to start-ups in specially designated Keystone Innovation Zones. And the city's Startup PHL program provides seed funding to ambitious businesses located here.

The next president must recognize technology's potential for reducing unemployment and improving quality of life in our nation's urban centers. The solution resides in bold, innovative workforce development, with buy-in from community and corporate interests, along with targeted government support.

Innovation is the new currency, and the technology sector gives us an unprecedented chance to make that currency available to all Americans.

Leveraging technology to close the inequality gap can, and should, be our next president's moonshot. As President John F. Kennedy said in 1962 about the original (ultimately successful) moonshot, this is a cause worthy of the best of our energies and skills.

Stephen S. Tang is the president and CEO of the University City Science Center and a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and [email protected]