VCU College of Engineering begins initiative to address ‘tech-education deserts’

Collaborative project will expand access to region’s technology careers

Student working in front of a computer

The VCU College of Engineering is collaborating with business leaders and community organizations to identify and analyze the technology education opportunities currently available in the Central Virginia region. The college has received funding from the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity (GO Virginia), for this work, which will reveal the region’s “technology-education deserts” where resources don’t exist, or where access to them is hindered by barriers such as poor infrastructure or lack of transportation.

Practical opportunities for technology education often lag in low-income communities — the very communities that stand to benefit from them most.

In today’s economy, a technology education is a reliable route to prosperity and job security.  A September 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that computer and information technology jobs will increase by 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Across all sectors, the majority of new jobs in the future are expected to require moderate-to-high levels of digital skills. The promise of the expanding digital economy is hampered, however, by disparities in access to technology education.

With a robust suite of outreach programs, VCU Engineering has been working to address tech-education disparities for the last several years. It is now entering a phase that will bring in stakeholders from the education, business, government and nonprofit sectors. Todd Waldo, founder of the management consulting company Hugh Helen LLC, is partnering with VCU Engineering on this initiative.

An electrical engineer by training and longtime community development advocate, Waldo said he was moved to join VCU Engineering in this initiative because he has seen how technology education can transform individuals and communities.

“I am excited to bring experience and expertise from my engineering career to this unique opportunity to partner with VCU Engineering to lead an effort that will bring more equity and opportunities for careers in technology,” he said.

The group is creating a central repository of current technology education activities in GO Virginia Region 4, which includes the cities of Colonial Heights, Emporia, Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond, as well as their surrounding counties. This index will include all K-12 and higher education programs, tech-industry certifications and ad-hoc opportunities to upskill for the digital economy.

By mapping the existing tech-talent education activities, they aim to identify the gaps and fill them by creating stronger links across the tech-education community. A final report next year will deliver targeted recommendations to expand the reach of existing resources and build new programs to meet the needs of underserved communities.

Above all, these recommendations must be practical and realistic, said Paul Rocheleau, M.B.A., VCU Engineering’s executive director of strategic development, who is leading this project for the college.

“At the end of the day, what we need is a toolkit that can be overlaid across the existing ecosystem and deployed where help is needed,” he said.

Rocheleau emphasized that the group is committed to delivering actionable recommendations that expand access to the region's technology careers.

“It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the changes in the field,” he said. “So by definition, how you teach technology has to change. Our job is to create a means for real-time insertion of these next-generation technologies into the learning process at all levels.”

This initiative is part of a major effort at VCU Engineering to bring more Virginians into the digital economy, and to increase the highly skilled workforce that businesses need. Over the last five years, the college has also greatly expanded its enrollment and diversity of computer science majors.