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New tech school tackles diversity challenge head on

New tech school tackles diversity challenge head on Shutterstock

Warner Pacific University partners with business community to provide new technical degrees.

It is a perennial issue facing higher ed and the business community: how to diversify the mostly white male tech workforce.

A group of business folks and education professionals have taken on the challenge by launching a tech school in downtown Portland in partnership with one of the most racially diverse higher education institutions in Oregon, Warner Pacific University.

The Portland liberal arts college has teamed up with coding school Epicodus and cybersecurity workforce development startup Riperia to launch sourceU, a tech school that offers associate's and bachelor's degrees in web and mobile development, digital product design and cybersecurity.

The initiative is unique in that its academic programs blend IT skills teaching with liberal arts components, such as writing and communication. The programs are shorter and cheaper than traditional degrees: An associate's degree can be completed in 16 months and a bachelor's degree can be finished in as little as 32 months.

By partnering with Warner Pacific University, Epicodus hopes to increase access to under-represented and low-income students. The company has not been able to attract as many diverse students as it wants to, partly because it does not have access to federal aid that traditional colleges and universities have, said CEO Michael Kaiser-Nyman.

“We haven’t been able to do all that we want to,” said Kaiser-Nyman, who spoke at a launch event at the company’s Portland headquarters yesterday. “There is only so much we can do to keep tuition low.”

Crucially, the Warner Pacific partnership means Epicodus can provide accredited degrees through the new school, which employers still seek when they hire graduates.

Andrea Cook, president of Warner Pacific University, said her motivation for launching a new school comes from hearing from employers that graduates are not prepared for the workforce. “Tech employers acknowledge hiring young talent is a major challenge,” she said. “Warner Pacific is committed to incubating academic programs quickly to suit the changing workforce.”

An estimated 8,000 jobs will become available in the next few years in Portland’s tech sector. The city has the fourth highest demand for tech professionals per capita in the country. Cybersecurity professionals are in particular high demand. An estimated 3,000 positions are unfilled for cybersecurity professionals in Oregon. (You can read more about the private and public sector’s efforts to address the dearth of cyber professionals in the cover story of our upcoming February issue of Oregon Business magazine.)

“We have reason for concern,” said Ben Sands, CEO of Portland Leadership Foundation and advisor to Cook. “The tech companies are not representative of all who live here. People of color and women are not participating in the tech growth at rates that match the city’s growth.”

The question remains whether employers will respond positively to graduates from the new school. Many hiring managers still seek traditional four-year technical degree holders, despite their complaints that graduates lack the necessary skills for the workplace.

Graduates with degrees coming out of the new tech school might just turn out to be what employers are looking for.

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Kim Moore

Kim Moore is the editor for Oregon Business magazine.

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