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Over the past three years, Building 21’s co-founders Chip Linehan and Laura Shubilla teamed up with Elevate 215’s Stacy Holland to brainstorm a new kind of workforce development program.

Dannyelle Austin, the Executive Director of Launchpad, joined the team in late 2022 and the design process began to accelerate. Together they envisioned a program that wasn’t quite college and wasn’t quite an apprenticeship, but a truly new model. They called it Launchpad and in this post as well as a few others throughout the upcoming months, I will be sharing a little bit about Launchpad and what we have been building in Philly.

Why Now?

Last summer, Jobs for the Future (JFF) published “The Big Blur”, a report advocating for a new model for workforce development that blurs the lines between High School, College, and Careers. The paper argues that the current high school model woefully inadequately prepares young people to enter the modern workforce.

As high school CTE and pre-apprenticeship programs become fewer and farther between, most 18-year-olds are leaving the public education system without a clear direction and without the necessary skills to land and thrive in good-paying jobs. Unfortunately, only about half of students who start college earn a degree, with only 14 percent of low-income students reaching that milestone. Furthermore, college is also not always the best way to prepare young people for the workforce. Without meaningful career connections and specific job-ready skills, many people leave college with a huge amount of debt and not much more job prospects than a high schooler.

In the paper, JFF argues for an entirely new institution that targets young people in their last two years of high school, and stays with them after they graduate, easing the transition between high school, college, and career, and creating a space that can better prepare young people for the world of work.

the big blur

The JFF report aligned well with the program that Chip, Laura, and Stacy were already brainstorming at Building 21. Since founding the Philadelphia Lab School in 2014, they had seen first hand the lack of options afforded to young people in the city not interested in going to college. At the core of Building 21’s mission is a desire to innovate and break free from traditional models of education, ensuring that any and all work we do with young people serves to empower them as learners and individuals. So naturally, when they noticed the severe deficit in opportunities present throughout the district and the city as a whole, they decided to fix it themselves. As Chip likes to tell it: 

The question was not “should we do this?” The question was “how can we NOT”?

Outside of Building 21’s motivation and the shifting landscape of youth workforce development as a whole, I believe there is a unique, immediate need for Launchpad in the Philly tech space. Tech has a serious diversity problem. Women and people of color are massively underrepresented in the tech industry, with only about 6% of developers identifying as Black according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This disparity has resulted in numerous instances of racial bias making its way into technology used for facial recognition by law enforcement and housing discrimination. The tech industry needs more skilled technologists of color not only to address its history of bias, but also to build a sustainable, creative future. At the end of the day, only employing one tiny subset of the population will inevitably stifle creativity and innovation. We need individuals from all backgrounds working, ideating, and flourishing in the tech space to ensure it becomes all it can possibly be. Tech companies are moving to Philly, eager to take advantage of its affordability and East Coast density. However, this migration has not created the kind of economic opportunity for locals that the city needs.

My hope is, with Launchpad and similar programs, we might be able to capitalize on this influx of opportunity, and ensure that tech works for the city, just as its citizens begin working for tech.

How Do We Get There?

Launchpad’s mission is to bring together networks of students, high schools, post-secondary institutions, and employers to co-create new pathways for young people that lead to good jobs in growing industries. We accomplish this in a three year program that starts when a student is in 11th grade, and continues for a year and a half after high school.

Through this time, students are acquiring a mix of technical skills, industry exposure, college credits, certifications, and real world work experience. The entire program is tuition free, and students are paid for all the time they participate in Launchpad.

Our college courses are offered in partnership with Arizona State University as part of their Universal Learner Program. Additionally, we have been working alongside Harrisburg University Philadelphia to offer space and enrichment activities for our high school students. It is our very first year, and we are hoping to enroll 45 11th graders for our inaugural cohort. As the program grows and scales up, we want to eventually bring in cohorts of 100 11th graders year over year.

Students begin the program with a once a week after school program known as Launchpad Foundations. This runs from January through June in their 11th grade year. Launchpad Foundations seeks to provide students with a general overview of the different components of the program: a single college course on IT fundamentals, a research project on career pathways in technology, and opportunities for industry exposure.

Following Launchpad Foundations, students transition into Launchpad 101, a more intense year-long course meant to ramp up the difficulty and prepare students for what is to come after high school graduation. In this time, we want to teach students to be more independent: taking online college courses on their own, researching problems in their community that they want to use tech to solve, and working directly with industry partners to solve real world business challenges.

Launchpad Flyer

After high school, the time commitment for Launchpad goes up substantially. We are also imagining this will be a point where students might transition out of the program, opting to go to college, enter the workforce right away, or pursue another postsecondary opportunity. If the outcome of that wayfinding process is, indeed, a career in tech, we will move participants into the third phase of the Launchpad program: Bootcamp.

We will equip young people with the skills required to succeed in their tech career over the course of six months with a mix project-based learning and classroom instruction.

The final phase of the program is employment.

Sadly, many boot camps provide folks with a swath of technical skills and a strong portfolio, but little to no work experience. In the final phase, students work for Launchpad’s social enterprise. With Launchpad, we want all of our participants to have opportunities to work with real clients, in an office, earning a living all within the relative safety of the Launchpad network. They will still be learning, gaining credentials, and growing as professionals and technologists all while easing into the routine of work. Finally, once they are ready to transition out of the program into a full-time, good paying job in the tech industry, Launchpad participants will “graduate” and move onto a fruitful and fulfilling career!

Next Steps and Lingering Questions

This fall we have been busy with recruitment and preparing for Foundations in the Spring, but the program still has many exciting milestones on the horizon. Eventually, we hope to move beyond the tech sphere, recognizing that tech is not going to be an ideal fit for all young people in the city. By offering programming in areas such as healthcare, manufacturing, quality assurance, and more, Launchpad will open up new avenues to high-paying jobs without the traditional financial barrier of college that often make these careers so inaccessible. Lastly, to accommodate our growing community, Launchpad is on the hunt for an exciting home base to run our program. We hope to find a location that offers ample space for our students to learn in as well as room for us to grow.

As we prepare for these exciting new chapters, we have also been moving through the difficult process of answering some of the most fundamental questions in the workforce development space. While we feel confident in our ability to give our students the strong foundation necessary to break into tech, we know many employers rely on credentials and certifications when making hiring decisions. We’ve been slowly working on striking a healthy balance between college credits and credentialing through partners and our own curriculum that attempts to fill in the knowledge gaps many traditional IT courses fail to address. 

Launchpad still is wrestling with the questions of how to convince students to take the leap and join, despite these looming concerns around accreditation. We hope that as we continue to build our reputation throughout Philly and beyond, Launchpad can set a positive example of how alternative workforce development programs can be the answer when traditional education models fall short. Especially as our initial cohort of students complete the program and eventually land lucrative positions at tech companies, Launchpad might be able to show the high schoolers across the city that these jobs are attainable, even without a four-year degree. 

At the end of the day, the hardest part of building a new kind of workforce development program, or anything new for that matter, is that you are truly starting from scratch. From how to teach this content to how to explain it to young people and their families, we are constantly running up against deeply entrenched habits and assumptions that work to limit the future possibilities for young people. My hope and my dream is that this kind of program can become a new normal, and young people interested in all sorts of careers and fields might be presented with opportunities to learn, experiment, fail, and grow as they journey towards a future that will work best for them.

Volunteer

If you are interested in volunteering with Launchpad, we need folks with tech backgrounds willing to help teach and mentor our young people! If you have any ideas or thoughts, please leave a comment or reach out to us at info@launchpadphilly.org.

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