From the outside, the old recreation center on a corner in Federal Hill looks the same, the kind of place where children do arts and crafts and play basketball.
But over the past five years, the inside has been transformed into a hub for coders. Cinderblock walls are painted with blue computer pixels. Laptops, 3D printers and laser cutters hum, and everywhere are the funky, whimsical and practical creations that came straight from young minds.
The children and teens are using computer skills for their inventions, but what the Digital Harbor Foundation’s director, Andrew Coy, says they’re really building is a pathway to technology jobs that pay for a middle-class — or better — lifestyle and could replace the city’s long-lost manufacturing sector.
The Tech Center is ground zero for a brewing movement to make Baltimore the city that codes: From government offices and schools to companies and nonprofits, teams are working to prepare young people for the innovation industry that has the potential to transform lives and revitalize neighborhoods. They say coding and digital fabrication are poised to become the backbone of Baltimore’s economy, and the city’s youth need to be ready.
Soldering lighting wires for a Plinko game she built from scratch, 16-year-old N’Dera Muhammad reflected on her experiences at the center over the past three years. She has earned college credits and a paycheck in the workshop, but said she was most grateful for the way Coy and the other teachers there have unlocked a talent for tech she didn’t know she had.
“I definitely know this has made my future,” said N’Dera, a Reisterstown senior who is home-schooled. “I intend to a pursue a career in digital fabrication and manufacturing. I want a shop that does manufacturing: signs, parts like for cars or robots, basically anything. There are a lot of possibilities.”
For cities like Baltimore that lost their industrial base, experts say opportunities abound if city leaders can carve out a niche market based on the demands of locally based companies. That means tailoring education to create a skilled labor force — and then enabling young people to step into the jobs that will attract more companies and forge an economic identity for the community. Already, more than one job in 10 in the Baltimore area requires coding skills, and those technology jobs are paying close to six figures, according to an analysis by Burning Glass Technologies, a software company that studies labor market trends.
Michael Rosenbaum spotted the potential in Baltimore nearly 20 years ago when he came to the city to found Catalyte, an Otterbein-based company that specializes in artificial intelligence. A former Harvard University economics and law fellow, Rosenbaum saw Baltimore as an untapped labor market where the natural-born talents of the population were regularly overlooked for pedigree and credentials.
Since opening its doors, he said, the company has hired about 600 local people as software engineers, relying on blind hiring practices that remove cultural biases and select applicants with a natural inclination for tech. Forty-four percent of its workers do not have college degrees but are offered apprenticeship-style training, education and mentorship. Most go on to earn $100,000 in their first several years, he said.
Rosenbaum recalled the time an executive for a West Coast-based sports apparel company was introduced to the Catalyte team that designed the software for a piece of the company’s wearable technology. Among them were a former Taco Bell manager and a one-time gas station attendant.
“When you start from the premise that excellence is randomly distributed across society but opportunity isn’t, a place where the labor market isn’t working so well is a great place to test this out,” Rosenbaum said. “We built technology to identify the most talented software engineers without relying on a resume — folks who are otherwise overlooked or undervalued by the market.
“This is not about giving people opportunity. This is about finding the most brilliant people among us.”
At the Digital Harbor Foundation, one student spied a piano that was left behind when the old rec center closed, and wired the ivory keys to convert it into a digitized Spotify jukebox. As it did for that student, the space is designed to captivate the problem-solving skills and imaginations of 50 or 60 young people who come daily after school and on summer days. Over a year, the center serves about 1,500 young people.
Coy, a former White House senior adviser under President Barack Obama, said the center runs on roughly $500,000 a year in donations, offset by income from technology training the staff provides to city teachers, librarians and others.
Students in grades three to 12 can attend for little or no money; Coy said families are asked to pay what they can afford.
“The young people in Baltimore are hungry for this, and they’re passionate, and they have ideas and they want to make stuff,” Coy said. “In the out-of-school time, we have this rich opportunity to ask kids, “What do you want to make?’ ”
Coy is now focused on duplicating the center’s work in recreational spaces across Baltimore and the country. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks is using the Digital Harbor Foundation model to create a pilot program in four traditional recreation centers over the coming months.
Schmidt Futures, the charity endowed by former Google executive Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, gave the Digital Harbor Foundation a $200,000 grant to help other cities design and open rec center-based maker and computer science programs.
Pittsburgh will also be using the Digital Harbor Foundation as a prototype for computer science and technical training programs at the city’s 10 municipal recreation centers.
Other than the Digital Harbor Foundation, young people in Baltimore have exposure to tech training in a host of ways, including curriculum, internships at the city’s Department of General Services and an “Hour of Code” initiative to be offered in 50 city schools next month. Organizations such as Code in the Schools and Open Works also offer digital exposure and training in Baltimore.
Matt Sigelman, who runs Burning Glass Technologies, said exposing young people to tech education — and the basics of web development, software engineering and computer coding — instills the real skills needed in the innovation economy: creative thinking and the ability to solve problems.
Over time, he said, what is still thought of as the tech sector will merge with all professions from marketing and management to finance and life sciences, as companies incorporate computer skills and big data analysis into more and more positions.
Burning Glass found that in the last year, 12 percent of all advertised positions in the Baltimore area, or more than 35,000 jobs, were looking for candidates with coding skills. On average, those jobs pay $94,000.
“That says this is already a city where there is a bunch of opportunity as it relates to the tech economy,” Sigelman said. “That opportunity only gets bigger over time.
“Given how many students in Baltimore are growing up in communities where there aren’t a lot of people who have college degrees, where there are high rates of poverty, the ability to position those students for the kinds of jobs that pay $94,000 a year is not just life-changing, it’s community-changing.”