At City Summit 2018, 50 cities committed to new initiatives to support their innovation economies. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments in order to showcase successes, identify best practices and connect peer cities who can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work:
Over the last two decades, Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a veritable poster child for post-Industrial economic revitalization, a fact few would have predicted forty years ago. The collapse of its manufacturing industries in the late 20th century resulted in a peak unemployment rate of 18 percent, the dissolution of 75 percent of its steel corporations and a 30 percent decrease in its population. Name a dimension of economic prosperity and it’s likely that Pittsburgh saw it decline during this period.
Its fortunes began to change in the early 2000s. Leading a cohort of so-called “legacy cities” like Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore, Pittsburgh’s recovery was jump started when it began to capitalize on its comparative advantage in high-tech industries, research and development.
The city hosts a booming advanced manufacturing sector and its two largest universities — Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh — contribute more than a third of the state’s overall university research output. Firms like PNC, Google, Bayer and Uber leverage the dense blend of technology companies, business incubators and research hubs located in the city’s innovation district.
While measures of general economic prosperity have improved in Pittsburgh, they haven’t improved for everyone. The high- and medium-wage jobs created by the city’s innovation economy are rarely filled by residents living in its poorer neighborhoods.
As of 2017, there were 32,000 long-term unemployed residents in the city and fewer than one percent of Pittsburgh’s IT workers were African-American, compared to seven percent nationally. Furthermore, the labor market appeared to be tightening. To avoid stagnation, the city needs to upskill more workers and funnel them into high-paying tech jobs, most of which do not require a four-year degree.
Teaching job skills of the future with Rec2Tech
Under the administration of Mayor Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh leapt to action. In November 2019, in response to NLC’s call to action to support innovation and entrepreneurship, it committed to transforming underutilized city-owned recreation centers into technology-enabled spaces for youth through a program called Rec2Tech.
First piloted in Baltimore, Rec2Tech simultaneously expands internet access in low-income and communities of color while exposing youth to high-paying professions in the innovation economy.
With guidance from Baltimore-based foundation, Digital Harbor, Pittsburgh implemented a week-long pilot of Rec2Tech in three of its 10 city-owned rec centers to immense success. As it turns out, the kinds of technical skills Rec2Tech teaches are not only extremely marketable, but kids also love to learn them.
Pittsburgh leveraged the success of its pilot into funding two years later. Now the goal was to expand the initiative to all the city’s rec centers on a more permanent basis. Through a combination of city budget monies and grants from Digital Harbor and the state’s economic development agency, the city has more than one million dollar to renovate its first rec center — the largest in Pittsburgh. In the zip code where the center is located, 30 percent of residents lack a home internet connection.
“If you’d gone to [this recreation center] before, it would have been a hot meal, a community meeting, maybe some sports,” says Max Dennison, Pittsburgh’s Digital Equity and Inclusion Manager. “Now we’re thinking about coding camps, music editing software and 3D printing.”
An initiative driven by unlikely partners
Dennison describes the city’s partnership with InnovatePGH, a public-private partnership that bolsters the city’s innovation initiatives, as a crucial factor in the momentum carrying Rec2Tech forward. “[InnovatePGH] has generated interest among groups that want to donate time, money and resources to Rec2Tech. It could be volunteering your time to do a semester long program at a center or donating a roomful of computers,” he says.
The city is also collaborating with the Remake Learning Network, a consortium of educators and STEM advocates, to design programming for the new tech centers. City leaders like Dennison recognize that increasing access to technology isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide. It requires creating a community of trained educators and effective curricular supports. The team at Remake Learning plays a key role in this.
Dennison is laser-focused on preparing disadvantaged youth for the innovation economy. He’s seen how a one- or two-year education in tech and programming can result in significantly higher salaries, potentially changing the trajectory of a young person’s life. He has already started to build relationships with local startups interested in offering internships to youth involved with Rec2tech. “They need the workers. There is a lack of programmers in this city and if we don’t start letting kids know the opportunity is out there, then we’ll all suffer.”
For a region reported to have 18,000 open computer jobs, per a recent Code.org report, Rec2Tech is a step in the right direction.
About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.