$1M+ North American Challenge seeks to level the digital economy playing field
The critical need for ‘Inclusive Innovation,’ defined by MIT as the use of technology to skill and empower workers at the bottom and middle of the economic spectrum, is becoming increasingly apparent to U.S. businesses and policymakers. While overall unemployment currently hovers at about four percent, it is much higher in many geographic areas and among certain populations. Moreover, many more people are underemployed–stuck in low-wage job cycles that leave them struggling to find work that offers livable salaries, employable skills, and a chance for advancement.
Two Winners from last year’s MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge address these disparities head on. Co-founders Jason Green and Mike Knapp of SkillSmart–a winner in the category of Income Growth & Job Creation–were surprised that employers were unable to articulate the skills they needed. As a result, they over-rely on degrees, resumes, or years of experience, which disqualify large segments of the skilled population.
By connecting jobs and job seekers at the skill level, SkillSmart’s online platform equalizes the playing field and transforms talent development into a more inclusive process. Green says that regional skill gaps exist even if talent is available elsewhere in the country. SkillSmart works with specific employers—like manufacturers in New England– and local jobseekers, to find and train qualified employees.
Similarly, LaunchCode, the 2017 MIT IIC Grand Prize award winner in the Skills & Matching category, provides free coding education to job seekers who lack traditional credentials and then matches them to jobs. It uses a low-cost, scalable model that replicates in-person coding classes, followed by paid apprenticeships and full-time employment with hundreds of companies around the U.S. “We’re using innovation and tech tools to resolve old problems in new ways,” says LaunchCode Executive Director, Jeff Mazur.
As the MIT IIC ramps up its third year, it is seeking more inclusive innovators like SkillSmart and LaunchCode. This year the IIC has expanded its global reach with five regional partners in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America. More than $1.5 million will be awarded globally.
In the U.S., the IIC is collaborating with The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation to present the 2018 North American Challenge. The Foundation offers grants and sustained investment, particularly in Southeast Michigan and Western New York—regions where Ralph Wilson Jr. lived and invested in the Buffalo Bills’ franchise.
Three North America Finalists will be announced this fall in four IIC Award Categories—Skills & Matching; Technology Access; Income Growth & Job Creation; and Financial Inclusion. These 12 Finalists will attend the IIC North America Celebration in Detroit where eight Finalists will be awarded $5,000. From there, four Winners will receive $20,000 and a trip to MIT, where they will have the opportunity to win the $250,000 Global Grand Prize in their Award Category. Hosting the Challenge award ceremony in Detroit provides an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the economic and workforce revitalization taking place there, and demonstrate how the region is growing more inclusively.
Many jobs today–especially in the ‘gig economy’–skew heavily to part-time positions, which rose by 310,000 in March, while full-time positions fell by 311,000 in that month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, job postings for IT occupations increased in March.
Job creation and skills matching are important ways to broaden the reach of the digital economy and create better jobs for more workers. Both SkillSmart and LaunchCode tap into employee talent pools that are underutilized for many reasons, including educational and socio-economic disadvantages, and lack of opportunities and access. For example, SkillSmart actively reaches out to veterans, recent Puerto Rican storm evacuees, and displaced workers, among others.
Since winning the IIC, LaunchCode had its biggest fiscal quarter yet with 94 career placements, Mazur said, and it just began a new program, called Discovery, to reach employees who lack “foundational skills for success.” The infusion of funds and the exposure from the Challenge were a tremendous boost. In partnership with Facebook, the Discovery program allows workers to brush up on skills at the St. Louis public library. Once the pilot is fully tested, it will be rolled out elsewhere so “we can reach people earlier, and broaden the talent pipeline.”
SkillSmart is also partnering to build on its success. The Employment Technology Fund (ETF), Funded by the Walmart, Rockefeller, Joyce and W.K. Kellogg Foundations, recently invested in the SkillSmart platform. ETF invests in organizations and companies that have developed technology-enabled solutions to help workers overcome barriers that often hold them back from advancing their skills.
The MIT IIC offers “an invaluable chance to interact with other finalists, exchange ideas, and compare common challenges and also differences in how we approach our goals,” Mazur said. “There’s no better place than the MIT IIC to meet with global influencers and learn how to make the world better.”
In total, MIT has awarded more than $2 million to organizations that embrace inclusive innovation, and aim “not only for prosperity but shared prosperity,” according to MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
U.S.-based Inclusive Innovators can apply to the MIT IIC in the North America Region now. Registration deadline is May 29. To support the MIT IIC as a Sponsor, Outreach Partner, or Media Partner, email email@example.com.