Tim NesbittStephanie Yao Long/Staff 

Tim Nesbitt

One Portland software entrepreneur is promoting an unorthodox idea for boosting opportunity for women and people of color in his white-male-dominated industry: Reduce starting wages. But he combines that idea with a more popular one: Expand career pathways with internships and apprenticeships in which new hires earn while they learn and get substantial increases in pay thereafter.

Joaquin Lippincott, founder and president of Metal Toad, has grown his business by hiring programmers with college degrees and two or more years of experience and paying them $90,000 a year. But he now realizes that he is drawing from a limited talent pool – white and Asian males, aged 30 to 45, beards optional but commonplace. These “brogrammers” represent just 25 percent of their cohort. To Lippincott, that means “we’re missing out on 75 percent of the smartest people out there.” And he’d like to reach them by offering $15-per-hour apprenticeships that lead to $60,000- to $70,000-a-year jobs in two to four years.

Portland boosters have been celebrating the ascendance of the software industry here for its rapid job growth, high salaries and expanding commercial footprint–now covering over a quarter of all office space downtown. But Lippincott isn’t bragging. Instead, he’s fretting over the disruption he sees from the influx of out-of-state talent, the bidding up of wages and rents and the gentrification of neighborhoods. And he is worried about the job-killing effects of technological innovation and automation in the larger workforce.

Lippincott, a UCLA grad who followed the advice of his first employee and moved from San Diego to Beaverton in search of a more affordable lifestyle, has brought the vision of an iconoclastic but civic-minded futurist to his new home state. He supported Measure 98 (for which I served as an advisor) to expand and connect career-technical training in our high schools to jobs that require technological literacy. But he also cautioned that his industry can be a disruptive “wealth consolidation vehicle.” Despite that, he expects this “consolidation of wealth [will go] to states and cities that get it right” and wants to spread that wealth more equitably among a new and more diverse generation of home-grown knowledge workers.

In our conversations, Lippincott and I pinball from my old ideas, forged at a time when educational opportunities were broadly accessible and affordable and when unions set the standards for secure jobs and benefits for much of the workforce, to his insights, formed in a world of what he calls “ultra-liquid capital” – or the rapid evolution of technologies and the fast-changing nature of work. But we often find synergy between the old and the new. Here are some examples.

First, let’s not be fixated on starting wages. It’s right to set a standard that keeps all workers above the poverty line, which is why progressives are “fighting for fifteen” as a minimum wage. But the greater need is to ensure real wage growth thereafter. That’s not easy to do in some sectors. But if we can get more workers into occupations that offer broad career ladders and rewards for lifelong learning and productivity gains, we should be willing to embrace training wages and subsidies for apprenticeship programs.

Second, I share Lippincott’s sense of the talent pool. We recognize that genius is randomly distributed, but we tend to forget that talent is broadly distributed as well. Diversity is not just a feel-good goal. It is a pragmatic recognition of the potential in any generation. To ignore that potential, even worse to stifle it, is both our failure and our loss. And, as Lippincott reminded me, the only way to diversify the programmer workforce is to reach into our high schools. Here’s where old-style apprenticeships and school-to-work programs will gain new luster.

Third, coding and programming aren’t just for high-end software development companies like Metal Toad. Just as math is the language of science, coding is becoming the language of business from human resource functions to marketing analytics. That’s why it is misleading to try to match career-technical training slots to jobs in what we categorize as Information Technology. Technological skills can spell the difference between dead-end work and upward mobility for a new generation of workers in jobs that continue to evolve and spread across all industries. Think “wine tech and timber tech,” says Lippincott.

There are more insights I’ll share from these conversations in future columns. Meanwhile, you can keep up with Lippincott on his LinkedIn blog [https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tech-just-industry-joaquin-lippincott].

Tim Nesbitt writes on public affairs, has served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber, and is past president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He writes regularly for oregonlive.com and The Oregonian. He can be reached at nesbitt.columns@gmail.com.

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