Tech executives like Google’s Sundar Pichai have become fond of saying that in the future, people will have to become continuous learners in order to keep up with the pace of technological change in the workforce. But many current workforce development programs aren’t designed to help people from a wide variety of backgrounds gain new skills effectively and rapidly.
That’s one of the challenges Inspire Idaho, a tech training program developed by the University of Idaho and self-described “economic transformation firm” Innovation Collective, hopes to solve. This week, Inspire Idaho launched a free 12-month app development program with about 140 participants in five cities across the state, ranging from Boise (population 50,285) to Plummer (population 1,017 and located on the Coeur d’Alene Native American reservation).
Participants will complete Apple’s 180-hour App Development with Swift curriculum, which is a part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code program. If students don’t have a MacBook, they can buy a MacBook Air through the University of Idaho at a discounted price of about $799. If they can’t afford to buy one, Innovation Collective will lend them one free for a year.
Three times a month, they’ll meet with a larger cohort of about 20-30 participants in their community who are also going through the program, a host (someone who works for the University of Idaho), and a mentor (a local computer science or IT professional who has been trained by Apple’s Professional Learning Program) to discuss any portions of the curriculum that are giving them trouble.
Once every three months, Apple will also fly out support staff to speak with participants about the curriculum, show them other things they can do with Swift, and talk with them about what’s new at Apple, according to Innovation Collective CEO Nick Smoot (Apple did not respond to a request for comment about its involvement with the program). By the end of the 12 months, students will have created five apps, built collaboratively in teams of three to five.
While Inspire Idaho isn’t the first organization to utilize Apple’s Everyone Can Code program, which the company released in May of last year, it’s noteworthy for a few reasons. In addition to support from Apple, the program has received backing from other high-profile tech executives. Former U.S. CTO Megan Smith joined Inspire Idaho for a portion of a 20-city tour the program conducted around the state in March, where participants learned how to program Sphero Robots using an iPad. And Schmidt Futures — a philanthropic organization founded by former Google chair Eric Schmidt — has given a matching grant to Inspire Idaho (Smoot declined to say what size donations Schmidt Futures would be matching).
Smoot told VentureBeat in a phone interview that the plan is for the program to be the first of many promoting what Smoot calls “rapid learning of high value skills.” Eventually, Inspire Idaho hopes to partner with corporations and universities in Idaho and other states to develop free or low-cost programs that can in 3 to 12 months teach skills that are highly sought after in today’s tech-driven economy — cybersecurity, machine learning, and soft skills like management.
“The idea is that … now [participants] can take their new skill and apply it authentically to what they want to do with it,” Smoot told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “They get remote work, or they build apps for their local community … it’s more about giving people the skills they’ve always wanted to go pursue whatever the hell they want to go do.”
In order to keep the program’s costs low and target more rural residents — who traditionally haven’t had easy access to the variety of tech training programs available to urban or suburban residents — Inspire Idaho hosts its meetings in agricultural extension offices across the state. Passed by Congress in 1914, the Smith-Lever Act dictated that land grant universities — roughly 76 universities given access to federal land as part of the Morrill Act of 1862 — establish physical offices in each county of the state to provide education on farming and agricultural-related topics to that county’s residents. As the U.S. has become less dependent on farming, agricultural extension offices have seen their influence wane.
But Smoot sees these centers as ideal venues for hosting tech training programs that all members of a community can access, whether they live in a suburb, a big city, or a small town. Of the 140 participants going through the first app development program — with another 650 on a waitlist to get into other programs — over 30 percent make less than $20,000 per year.
“They [agriculture extension offices] have internet, they have heat, they have air conditioning — they’ve got all the things that make this a safe place that anybody can get to,” Smoot told VentureBeat. Inspire Idaho had to partner with the local land grant university in the state — in this case, the University of Idaho — in order to get access to the agriculture extension offices, and Smoot said that Inspire Idaho hopes to partner with other land grant universities as it expands to other states. Smoot said he’s already received interest from corporations and other organizations in 6 different states — all eager to bring the Inspire Idaho program to their community.
One of the challenges Inspire Idaho faces is demonstrating the value of its programs in terms of strengthening the economies of local communities. In speaking with VentureBeat, Smoot criticized traditional economic development programs that focus on recruiting large corporations, which may eventually fold or end up cutting jobs. Smoot said that the goal of Inspire Idaho isn’t necessarily to get people 9-5 jobs — though the program is looking at large corporations to determine what skills employers find valuable.
“We [want to] give [graduates] a buffet of the black magic skills that are coming out of the great corporations, and then say ‘What do you want to do with those things?'” Smoot said.