Charlottesville’s City Council recently directed City Manager Maurice Jones to develop a resolution designed to strengthen the relationship between local worker-training programs and the area’s emerging tech economy.
The directive came after Councilor Kathy Galvin presented the rest of the council with a proposed resolution that directs city staff to create paid internships in the local tech sector and to develop strategies to get local trainees full-time work in the tech industry.
If approved, the resolution would give city staff nine months to come up with a plan.
The draft resolution, Galvin said, was inspired by the Obama administration’s 2015 TechHire initiative. The program, which is in place in Lynchburg, seeks a similar goal and has programs in 51 localities nationwide, according to TechHire.
“It is our responsibility to build the local talent pool for people to hire. Otherwise, they are going to just hire the most qualified,” she said. “Let’s make sure our local people are the most qualified.”
According to the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council, technology jobs make up about 10 percent of the local job market and pay an average salary of about $74,000 a year.
To help students at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center and Piedmont Virginia Community College get their foot in the door, the resolution calls for the city to set up paid internships for those working toward a degree or certificate.
“I have had CEOs tell me that if there were paid internships, they would take advantage of them,” Galvin said.
Mayor Mike Signer advocated for expanding the resolution to include plans for increasing the availability of affordable housing and commercial space, as well as branding Charlottesville as a tech hub.
“The point is, with our full-time staff, rather than our part-time policymakers, we would put these into one place and a strategy,” he said. “Another goal would be developing strategies in the Comprehensive Plan for providing commercial space and housing suitable to this sector.”
Galvin and Councilor Kristin Szakos said they agree with Signer that the resolution should address the need for more affordable housing.
They both pointed to Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an example of what not to do. Chattanooga has in recent years bolstered its startup and technology sector, including opening a 90,000-square-foot innovation center, but faces a critical shortage of affordable housing.
“I have looked in Austin[, Texas] and a couple other places that have really embraced this tech economy, and they have had very similar outcomes to Chattanooga,” Szakos said. “And while their economies thrive, their people don’t.”
But Galvin and Szakos both said they are concerned that if the measure became too broad, it could leave low-income people behind in terms of getting training.
Without a focus on hiring for low-income residents, Galvin said, a city-driven strategy is worthless.
“If [the plan] doesn’t have affordable housing or leaves low-income folks behind, that is not necessarily something to be celebrated in my mind,” she said.
Making sure the program is equitable, said Councilor Wes Bellamy, also would mean giving participants time to finish their certificates or degrees. Participation in a workforce program is an important step, he said, but can be hindered by lack of access to necessary equipment.
“To do this, and to do it right, it is going to take some time,” said Bellamy, who teaches computer science at Albemarle High School. “Learning to code is hard, especially if you do not have the resources … If you don’t have a laptop or the internet, you can’t practice your skills and be competitive.”