The pandemic triggered an economic collapse that not only resulted in millions of people out of work but revealed glaring weaknesses of outdated government websites and networks. Catastrophic system failures left people facing frozen screens as they sought life-sustaining resources, unemployment information and health care updates.
State and federal online systems could not support the volume of people seeking help even as billions of tax dollars are spent each year propping up aging government IT. Those hurt most by these shortcomings were predominantly Black and brown communities now faced with record-setting unemployment and needing immediate assistance.
The Government Accounting Office in 2018 released a report exposing the federal IT systems most in need of modernization, including the Department of the Treasury, Social Security Administration and the Department of Education. These three departments wheeze along under legacy systems nearly half a century old, with the accompanying cybersecurity risks and increased maintenance costs. More than $70 billion was allocated in 2019 to operate and maintain existing IT investments.
A study by the Rand Corporation noted that a serious obstacle in updating these decades-old technologies is a lack of coders trained in the programming languages upon which these websites were originally built. If training and budget are required to bring these systems up to date, why not invest in apprenticeship models that deliver updated software and give people from the marginalized communities hit hardest by the pandemic a chance to learn the tech skills needed to move out of the lower third of the economy?
It’s time to leverage the idea of public-private partnership to address the United States’ critical IT issues with smart initiatives that train a new generation of diverse technology employees. Apprenticeships will rebuild deteriorating IT systems and can develop tech skills in those who have been historically excluded from opportunity in the tech economy. Communities of color and/or concentrated poverty face financial barriers to entering the tech workforce simply because they can’t afford the training/education. Earn-while-you-learn apprenticeships eliminate these barriers, lifting communities out of systemic poverty and deliver much-needed modern software.
Apprenticeship.gov lays out many of the benefits of an apprenticeship model. By applying this model, people who are out of work get on-the-job training and underrepresented individuals can emerge from this pandemic with the growth skills needed to participate in the digital economy. Workforce development through custom apprenticeship programs will benefit government agencies and the entire economy.
The new administration has signaled strong support for investing in training that will build a more inclusive middle class. The Biden platform for education proposed to make “a $50 billion investment in workforce training, including community-college business partnerships and apprenticeships.” These funds will also be used to strength the Registered Apprenticeship Program.
Government, whether local, state or federal, can build on this national mission by creating in-house apprenticeship programs, by partnering with organizations to develop custom software solutions, or outsourcing their apprenticeship program.
Not all local or state government agencies have the bandwidth to create an entire apprenticeship training program in-house but there are third parties to help develop precisely what is needed for these projects. Outsourced apprenticeship models are becoming a favored choice because it puts the logistics of finding apprentices, educating them and providing on-the-job training on the third party that specializes in this area. These types of programs fill a critical need that has traditionally been overlooked, by facilitating training that can be tailored to an organization and offering a path to success for an underemployed/under-represented workforce.
The expansion of broadband access can remove geography as a barrier to participating in the digital economy. California and New York are leading the nation in pushing increased access to broadband services for underserved communities. The California legislature’s AB 34 provides funding to “close the digital divide” to rural, urban, suburban and tribal communities who have been left behind in the digital economy. New York has invested half a billion dollars to ensure broadband, achieving the goal for nearly 100 percent of its state residents.
The time is ripe to advocate for strategic investment in historically disenfranchised people who can create new digital infrastructure for government. It is clear that the nation’s deteriorating digital infrastructure presents an opportunity for profound economic growth and inclusion. Policymakers today have a monumental opportunity to influence how the digital infrastructure of the nation is rebuilt and create a diverse and representative future tech workforce in the process.
Jake Soberal is the CEO and co-founder of Bitwise Industries.
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