These organizations are training Detroiters for the modern tech economy

Microsoft's announcement earlier this year that it plans to relocate its regional technology center to downtown Detroit is just the latest sign that Motown's burgeoning tech sector is gathering steam. Add to that the recent convergence of the automotive and IT industries to produce automated vehicles and a growing community of local startups, and it's clear that the prospects are looking good for finding employment in STEM fields.

In fact, jobs requiring STEM skills seem to be the wave of the future not just for Detroit, but for the state as a whole. According to a 2015 report by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget STEM job opportunities are projected to grow by 11.8 percent through 2020, compared to just 8.5 percent for all occupations.

But in a city that's traditionally been geared towards manufacturing jobs, do Detroiters have the necessary skills to get hired? For most, the answer is unfortunately no.

Even on the national level college grads seem to be struggling with STEM skills right now. According to a PwC study, By 2021 only 23 percent of college graduates will have the science and analytical abilities that 69 percent of U.S. businesses would prefer in the employees they hire.

Luckily, it turns out several organizations are stepping in to fill the STEM skills gap in Detroit.

Uplifting students and parents

A local nonprofit called Uplift, Inc. has chosen to tackle the issue by engaging school-age children and their parents with the goal of getting more people of color into the tech-related fields.

The organization sponsors workshops, summer camps, invention labs, and other events geared around teaching problem-solving in a hands-on interdisciplinary manner. The group's activities, which emphasize science and technology while drawing on multiple types of skills, are designed to supplement what's learned in K-12 schools and workforce development programs. And all programming involving children requires the participation of a parent or guardian, so that entire families benefit.

"Corporate America says that they're looking for problem solvers," says president and founder Ida Byrd-Hill, who has a background in financial planning. "Our projects try bring all the discipline areas together, so we can teach the parent and the student to effectively solve a problem."

Ida Byrd-Hill

Uplift, Inc.'s learning tools have included everything from video games to nature walks, but its biggest project right now is Automation Workz!, a four-hour-long scavenger hunt event linked to Detroit's North American International Auto Show that provides participants with opportunities to earn cash prizes. As opposed to a traditional scavenger hunt, where one might pick up items or take a photo, at Automation Workz! competitors complete different activities designed help improve students standardized tests scores, like coding a robot.

"Those are hands-on activities," Byrd-Hill says, "and after you do them enough, when you sit in front of a testing situation, it clicks. "

Byrd-Hill first began doing this sort of work as a volunteer while her children were enrolled in Detroit Public Schools, putting together a committee of parents to create sealed lab sets for the classroom. Concerned about a lack of hands-on workshops, labs and computer courses, she continued to work with parent organizations to promote experiential learning in local schools.

She launched Uplift, Inc. in 1998, and thanks to the hard work of some gung-ho volunteers, not long after its founding the organization was sponsoring family events in around 60 area schools. As for its work bringing experiential learning to young people, the group seems to be making a real difference. Six area schools Uplift, Inc. has been doing focused work with have experienced standardized test score increases of 70 to 300 percent, according to Byrd-Hill.

In 2006, under the auspices of DPS, Uplift, Inc. piloted an alternative cyber school, the Hustle & TECHknow Preparatory High School, aimed at teaching tech skills to at-risk youth in an effort to steer them towards becoming entrepreneurs. All of its curriculum except for the labs was posted online. Although it's now closed, the school had an 80 percent graduation rate and 100 percent post-secondary matriculation rate, according to Uplift, Inc.'s website.

Uplift, Inc. is currently involved with 18 Detroit schools, both public and charter, along with many more within metro Detroit. It's currently looking into opening another alternative school and hopes to double the attendance at its Automation Workz! program, from 650 participants this year to 1,300 in 2018.

Coding among sisters

In order to fill as many jobs as possible with local talent, many novices will have to become fluent in technology. That's why Sisters Code was started. Open to women from all backgrounds between the ages of 25 to 85, the program is designed to "awaken the mature geek."

"We're all about empowering women in that age bracket to believe that they can do something different," says Sisters Code founder Marlin Williams. "And if they want to try coding, then we provide a safe fun environment to do so."
Marlin Page Williams
The group's mission mirrors Williams's own experience. Her first brush with coding came when she was 25 years old; it was the nineties, she was an aspiring mortician and substitute teacher doing her best to make ends meet. After an acquaintance told her about a coding bootcamp at Compuware's Farmington Hills offices that taught seven computer languages in 13 weeks, she decided to take the dive.

Williams enrolled and it opened the door to a lucrative new career. Within a matter of months, she was creating and maintaining code for the automotive and banking industries. Several years after that she became Compuware's first Diversity and Strategic Business executive and later still the city of Detroit's deputy chief information officer.

In 2013, Williams started Sisters Code as a way to both give back and make the tech field more inclusive. The organization offers several different programs: a Weekend Website Warrior class, an Intermediate HTML and CSS class, and a Beginner Javascript course. The weekend course is the gateway to the program for beginners, teaching basic HTML and CSS and a little bit of JavaScript.

"Just the look on their faces when they are able to do something in HTML is amazing," says WIlliams. "And by the end of this program, two days, they have created a small interactive website."

Classes take place at the Detroit administrative offices of the Henry Ford Health System, which along with Microsoft is a corporate partner to Sisters Code. There's a small fee for participating to cover the cost of meals and ensure that instructors are paid.

Since it began four years ago, Sisters Code has trained close to 300 people. Among the success stories, Williams mentions a Zumba instructor who attended the introductory class, enrolled in a bootcamp, and now works as a systems analyst with a major corporation. Or a 62-year-old retiree who attended classes, came back as a teaching assistant, and now runs a small business creating websites for churches.

The organization has big plans for 2018—it's currently in the process of transitioning from a social enterprise to a 501c3 nonprofit and is doing the footwork to open branches in other U.S. cities.

As for the future of STEM-related jobs in and around the Motor City, although she thinks more work needs to be done bringing trainings to the Detroit neighborhoods outside of Midtown and downtown, Williams is quite optimistic.

"Detroit is going to be revered as one of the best places for tech companies, tech employees and tech entrepreneurs—a fully functional tech ecosystem," she says. "No one's going to be left out, because there's going to be opportunities everywhere."

A "grand" way to code

For Detroiters looking to hone a more specific set of skills for the IT field, there's Grand Circus, a tech training institute which also operates a sister campus in Grand Rapids. Both are connected to the Rock Ventures family of companies.

"Our mission is to provide a platform to support an energized tech community of developers, learners and entrepreneurs in Detroit and Grand Rapids while also providing tech talent to the amazing companies throughout our region," says Grand Circus CEO Damien Rocchi.
Damien Rocchi - courtesy of Grand Circus
Launched in 2013, Grand Circus offers a special coding bootcamp designed to teach the technical know-how and soft skills needed to lead a successful career in the industry. At present, there have been more than 650 graduates who are now employed at 140 different companies around the state.

Bootcamps are typically 10 to 12 weeks, during which time students gain skills to build fully-functional applications in Front-End, Java or .NET(C#) programming. "We teach these specific languages because we know there are employers throughout the region that are actively looking for these skill sets," says Rocchi.

Grand Circus also offers a variety of coding, design, marketing, and other workshops—including a free intro to coding class—which are available on weekends and during evening hours. Tuition varies depending on the specifics of a particular workshop or bootcamp, but scholarship opportunities are also available.

In fact, Grand Circus has launched two DEVELOP(her) bootcamps geared specifically for women and held ten special bootcamps in conjunction with Mayor Mike Duggan's Detroit at Work initiative, which were open only to Detroit residents ages 18 and up.

The institute even collaborates with several major tech companies. It's one of eleven Google for Entrepreneurs tech hubs, a partnership that involves running events, holding office hours, and making programming to support Detroit's tech entrepreneurial community. 

Then there's a special Facebook-oriented bootcamp that combines Grand Circus' front-end curriculum with React, an open-source JavaScript platform maintained by the social media giant. Applicants accepted into that program receive full scholarships and training in a variety of coding languages as well as job assistance training and first-round interviews with Michigan tech firms. Meridian and Quicken Loans also partner with Grand Circus, awarding scholarships and offering conditional employment positions to graduates.

"The technology field is constantly evolving," says Rocchi, "which is why we maintain strong partnerships with tech companies and local government entities to ensure that our students are receiving the latest and most advanced training to properly position them to fill open technology roles."

This article is part of a series on the state of STEM education and workforce development in Detroit. It is underwritten by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here

All photos, except where mentioned, by Sean Work
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.