CUNY graduates with tech degrees are competing for tech jobs on land

The technology industry has been a leading growth engine for high-paying jobs in New York City over the past decade. That trend continued during the pandemic, but a new report casts doubt on how widely the tech-driven wealth is shared.

The new study details the challenges City University of New York students face when trying to launch a career in technology. The CUNY system is the nation’s largest urban university with 25 colleges and has long served as a ladder of upward mobility to the middle class for low-income New Yorkers. The majority of the students are Black and Hispanic.

CUNY has the potential to be “the city’s biggest, fairest stepping stone for tech careers,” the report said, but that potential is largely untapped.

Both CUNY and tech employers need to change to meet the challenge, according to the Center for an Urban Future, the public policy organization that conducted the research.

Hampered by budget constraints, CUNY has traditionally invested little in career development. The handful of successful but small programs the system offers to connect students with internship, apprenticeship and hiring opportunities need major expansion, the report said. And courses need to be revamped to teach the skills and leverage the technical tools demanded in today’s digital enterprise.

Employers also need to “overhaul recruiting and hiring practices that too often overlook the city’s native talent pool, and work closely with CUNY,” the report said.

Since 2011, CUNY has more than doubled the number of students earning degrees in technology to nearly 4,000 per year. However, the increasing supply is not matched by comparable success on the labor market.

According to the report, half of CUNY computer science graduates don’t have a job in their specialty a year after graduation. Paid internships — a key recruiting channel in tech — are also scarce: Only 10 percent of CUNY students say they’ve had one during their college career.

“In tech, the good jobs are growing in New York, and too few of those have gone to people of color,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.

Amazon funded the study but had no editorial control, Mr Bowles said.

The technology sector is not immune to the current economic slowdown as companies cut hiring and payrolls. Nonetheless, tech jobs are expected to be a major source of employment growth over the long term.

Since 2010, New York City’s tech sector has added 113,900 jobs, a growth rate of 142 percent, according to the center’s analysis, which is based on government statistics. While most industries in the city have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, tech employment has risen 17.5 percent since 2019, according to the center’s research.

By the end of 2021, the city’s tech sector employed 194,000 people, according to the center’s analysis. However, that number underestimates total employment for tech workers in the city because it excludes software engineers, data analysts, and cybersecurity professionals in other industries such as finance, healthcare, media, advertising, and consulting.

In New York, middle-class jobs are typically defined as jobs making $80,000 or more. The median salary for workers in the city’s tech sector was more than $220,000 last year, the research center estimated.

Making tech employment more inclusive is a nationwide goal. New York, America’s largest city and home to a diverse population, seems like a place where progress could be made. Today, less than 21 percent of tech workers are Black or Hispanic, even though people belonging to those two groups make up 43 percent of the city’s labor force.

“New York is uniquely positioned to not only be a leader in technology, but also a leader in technology diversity,” said Jason Clark, executive director of Tech:NYC, a not-for-profit industry group. “But we need to develop pipelines to jobs.”

The largest potential pipeline is the CUNY system, according to the Center for an Urban Future report.

In interviews, CUNY students who landed technology jobs said they typically did so through individual initiative, chance, or a program that gave them work experience.

Faisal Farooq’s big break came after he responded to a TaskRabbit ad posted by a venture-backed startup looking for someone to do basic data analysis. Mr. Farooq, an electrical engineer major at City College, didn’t have the programming skills needed, but he picked them up quickly.

The work environment was fast-paced and welcoming. He earned about $4,000 a month. “And when the summer ended, no one asked me to leave,” he recalls.

So he stuck with it. The start-up later closed and Mr Farooq went back to school to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

But he was on his way. He had professional experience and his competence in dealing with modern programming tools was growing. One job led to another, and today Mr. Farooq, 30, is a senior solutions architect at Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing business.

“If I hadn’t had that first opportunity, I wouldn’t have known the world of technological possibilities,” said Mr. Farooq.

Chrystal Mingo chose to major in computer science as a college major after a year later attending two short summer programs run by non-profit organizations, Girls Who Code and Break Through Tech.

She was 17 and had just graduated from high school when she took a paid two-week immersion course at Break Through Tech, which focuses on providing education and support to young women from underserved communities. The lecturers were inspirational and the focus was on real projects rather than academic exercises. Her group designed an app that shows well-lit streets to increase safety in Bronx neighborhoods at night.

This led to two three-week paid internships in companies. The short internships, called ‘sprinterships’, typically take place during the winter break from school, but often lead to full summer internships and then job offers, as they did with Ms. Mingo.

“Our students needed an opportunity to get their foot in the door and earn a resume,” said Judith Spitz, former Verizon chief information officer and founder of Break Through Tech, who developed the short internship concept.

Ms. Mingo, 23, graduated from City College and is now a Business Technology Analyst at Citigroup. She credited Break Through Tech as her springboard. “All of these doors opened up for me, and it was kind of a domino effect,” she said.

Plinio Ayala, the executive director of Per Scholas, a nonprofit that operates an apprenticeship and internship program, said his organization serves a steady stream of CUNY graduates. Participants receive a few months of tuition in business-oriented technology and links to employment opportunities at no cost. Eighty percent have a technology job within a year of completing the program.

“The network doesn’t exist for many CUNY alumni,” said Mr. Ayala. “We are the connector and validator.”

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, CUNY’s chancellor, said the system increasingly needs to make connections between students and careers. Since assuming this position in 2019, Mr. Matos Rodríguez has pushed for greater industry involvement and internship opportunities for students.

There has been progress. As part of a program announced last year, Bloomberg, Centerbridge and Goldman Sachs are now offering CUNY students paid internships and career advice in tech-heavy finance.

Mastercard works with LaGuardia Community College to design its cybersecurity courses and hire students for full-time jobs after they complete an apprenticeship with the company.

Google has also ramped up its recruitment efforts at CUNY schools, hiring 30 graduate students for full-time positions and hiring 21 CUNY students as paid interns and trainees in their senior year.

Last month, Mayor Eric Adams and Mr. Matos Rodríguez announced a $16 million public-private partnership, the CUNY Inclusive Economy Initiative, to partner with industry and sponsor 2,000 summer internships at companies.

Mr Matos Rodríguez said the Center for an Urban Future’s study points to the need for “more innovation, partnerships and opportunities for our technology students”.

That requires more resources, but also a different approach to career guidance and a closer relationship with business, say CUNY executives.

City College has five full-time careers advisors for its 14,000 students. Vincent Boudreau, the president, wants to increase that group to 12, but he also wants to bring industry professionals, including mid-career technology professionals, into the college classrooms. The city recently announced an inclusive economic program designed to support his plans.

“We need to start building career development and careers as part of the curriculum,” said Mr Boudreau.

Work and learn experiences are crucial. CUNY students in an internship program were three times more likely to be hired for technology jobs than their peers.

Kenneth Adams, president of LaGuardia Community College, said CUNY needs to convince more employers to offer internships and apprenticeships for its students. “It will take time and effort, but if we can make the right connections, we can take people out of poverty and into great careers in technology,” he said.

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