Community Economy

Tech jobs require tech talent. And tech talent requires tech jobs.

It’s this cycle of supply and demand that Louisville officials aim to feed with a new initiative called LouTechWorks announced Monday. The goal is to partner with public schools and higher education institutions to churn out more qualified potential workers in the near future, and to fill the pipeline for years to come.

Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, the chief of Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development agency, said Louisville needs to “radically change” the way it prepares people for work.

“Basically, we’re now in an era in which technology pervades everything. And we’ve seen this evolution, obviously for more than a generation now,” she said. “But it is now escalating to a point where we’ve got to do things differently for us to be competitive as an economy here in the greater Louisville area.”

Last year, Wiederwohl and her team set out to determine how the city could work with educators and the private sector to create the tech workforce they believe Louisville needs.

They came up with a framework called LouTechWorks that’s earned commitments from Jefferson County Public Schools, Jefferson Community and Technical College, the University of Louisville and others to change their curricula, enrollment and other efforts to boost talent. The city hopes that, in turn, will attract more employers.

By 2023, Louisville wants middle and high tech job growth to increase to 5 times today’s rate.

Mayor Greg Fischer said he’s proud of that goal.

“It’s important that we create big stretch goals for our city,” he said. “Tech talent development is one of those. It’s obviously needed from a current workforce situation and future, both for companies that are here, and then companies that are looking to locate here.”

Louisville needs new employers to reach its potential. Eric Burnette, a senior policy adviser at Louisville Forward, said the city currently falls short according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Louisville has about 79 percent of the tech jobs it should have for a city of its size,” he said. “For context, a really tech-heavy city like Austin has almost twice as many tech jobs as they should have.”

There are about 17,000 people working in high tech jobs in Louisville today, Wiederwohl said.

But Burnette said the Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that’s not enough for this mid-sized city. And the situation is more complicated than that. Not only does Louisville have fewer tech jobs than it should, it also has trouble filling all the jobs that it does have, Wiederwohl said, with some 2,000 to 3,000 open technology jobs at any given time.

To make matters worse, the Brookings Institution said earlier this year that Louisville is a city where machines could take on a lot of work that humans currently do.

“Louisville made a top 10 list we never wanted to be on where Brookings had us eighth out of the country for jobs that are high risk of automation,” Burnette said.

Mark Muro is the Brookings expert who wrote that report. He said he’s met with Louisville officials a few times in the past several months to present his research on these issues, but he didn’t know anything about Monday’s announcement.

He said exposure to technology needs to start as early as kindergarten.

“So really getting started early, so that you’re creating a pipeline,” he said. “But meanwhile, you can also meaningfully expand the pool of tech workers fairly rapidly through not just community college or post-secondary service certificates, but things like so-called accelerated learning programs.”

It can take years to see the benefits of programs that start with young kids, but code bootcamps and accelerated programs can show results much quicker, perhaps as soon as a year, he said.

According to Muro, the risk to a city like Louisville of not tackling this issue head on would be “very substantial.”

With this announcement, Louisville leaders say educational institutions are committing to improving the talent pool by adding digital skills graduation requirements and increasing enrollment in math and science degree programs. But there’s something these and the other commitments still lack: funding.

City officials say grants, corporate support and tuition from more students will help pay for the initiative.

This story has been updated.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.