An Open Letter to the New Orleans Tech Community

Over 18 percent of young people in New Orleans are referred to as “opportunity youth” – young adults aged 16-24 years who are disconnected from work or school. Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives estimates that this costs our city $360 million every year, and that “[e]ach percentage point reduction of opportunity youth in New Orleans would save taxpayers $20 million annually.”

The reasons for disconnection are plentiful, ranging from homelessness, to caring for ailing parents or younger siblings, to unmet mental health needs. Poverty is the single common denominator that impacts all opportunity youth. Without a high school diploma or vocational training, they are effectively banished from prospects inside the legal economy that many of us take for granted. High school dropouts ages 16 to 24 years old were 63 times more likely to be locked up than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher and are three and a half times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates.

This matters because the criminal justice system, where opportunity youth too often end up, makes no economic sense. It’s no secret that Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. Our state imprisons one in every 86 adults, nearly double the national average. The expense to taxpayers is exorbitant; our prisons cost $698.4 million per year.

Once convicted of a felony, ex-offenders must surmount collateral consequences before getting the chance to reintegrate into the legal economy and become taxpaying citizens. Collateral consequences are legal barriers that formerly incarcerated people experience after they’ve served their time; the American Bar Association estimates that there could be as many as 50,000 of them. Ex-offenders who want to do the right thing face an uphill climb. After being released, they cannot stay with relatives in public housing, receive state aid to get an education, qualify for a loan to start a business, or get a job in the oil and gas or shipping industries. Their efforts to ascend into the middle class thus require more than the dignity of hard work – they also need extremely good luck and a strong support system.

We cannot count on chance and good will anymore. Our high recidivism rates are pouring taxpayer dollars back into housing, clothing, and feeding those we incarcerate again and again. This cycle is not only expensive, it wastes human capital and thus economic potential. For the good of our people, and for the good of our economy, we must find a better approach.

Louisiana must connect opportunity youth with meaningful employment prospects before they become ensnared in the criminal justice system and its abyss of collateral consequences. But government and nonprofits cannot address these issues alone, and we should stop expecting them to. The private sector needs to step up.

At last week’s Statewide Economic Development Summit – the first in a decade – Governor Edwards insisted, “Our most precious natural resource is not our land, timber, or even oil and gas. It is our people. We have to invest in education and training programs, which are synonymous with opportunity.” At a time where 3,000 positions in software development remain unfilled across our state, the New Orleans tech community has the chance to shift the paradigm for disconnected youth. That’s because tech offers a hidden weapon to create economic opportunity – coding.

When a customer uses an app or visits a website, they never know the race, gender, formal education, socioeconomic status, or social networks of the person who did the coding. Coding is the one foreign language that can democratize opportunities for our neighbors who have been otherwise counted out. It can be a great equalizer.

Young coders can work hard and earn a livable wage without having to declare their criminal record – or even the grades on their high school report card – and they don’t have to take on the expense, and the time out, to attain a college degree. Plus, coding plugs New Orleanians into the global economy. Many apps on your Apple and Android phones were created by overseas programmers who knew American companies or entrepreneurs would need their services. Why not keep those jobs here? A great coder can work for anyone in the world from anywhere in the world. Once someone has the needed knowledge and skills, they only require an internet connection and a work ethic to succeed.

We can do this. New Orleans is one of two TechHire cities in the nation, thanks to our city’s CIO Lamar Gardere, Innovation Delivery Team Director Charles West, and many others in city leadership. We are incredibly fortunate to have nonprofits like The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) and Operation Spark in our midst. They offer coding classes and bootcamps, where opportunity youth gain a baseline knowledge of website and app development. But what these impactful nonprofits cannot offer, and what is so desperately needed, is the chance for students to get real-world experience and training while simultaneously working their way out of poverty.

A student and a coding instructor making a video game through the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans.

A student and a coding instructor making a video game through the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans.

Tech companies in New Orleans should follow the example set by the General Electric (GE) Digital Solutions Technology Center. In 2013, GE launched the Software Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SWEAP) in partnership with the University of New Orleans to provide students with real-world software development work experience and intensive software industry training. They committed $1 million annually to the program, and the results have been astounding, with a 100 percent conversion rate from part-time apprenticeships into full-time positions. Unfortunately, they’re the exception in our economy.

That’s where you come in: Opportunity youth need paid apprenticeships. We aren’t under any illusions about the hard work this requires. Instituting an apprenticeship program at your company will have its challenges. Certainly, young coders could struggle to initially grasp unfamiliar coding concepts, adjust to corporate culture, and deal with the barriers of poverty they are trying to escape. But no one is in this fight alone. If you answer the call, groups like YEP and Operation Spark will be your partners by providing the additional emotional support and mentorship to help our young people to add value to your company.

We challenge you to join the effort to reduce poverty, decrease the crippling expense of incarceration and recidivism, and grow the tax base in this city. Donate to Operation Spark and YEP, and sign up here to express your interest in longer term partnerships with both of them. Together, we can provide opportunity youth the chance to apprentice, improve their coding skills, and demonstrate the value they can add – not just to your company, but to our city. New Orleans cannot afford for you not to.

Thanks for hearing us out,

Josh and Rob

PS Don’t work for a New Orleans tech company but inspired to get involved? Collision raised $10,000 for Operation Spark in less than 24 hours by offering discounted tickets to its 2017 conference in New Orleans.   There are all kinds of ways to support the good people doing this great work, and we hope you will.

Josh Cox is an Associate at Barrasso Usdin who is Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Youth Empowerment Project. Rob Lalka is the Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Propeller, which has supported Operation Spark through its Impact Accelerator. They wrote this article over beers at DMac’s.