Last week, in its latest sweeping announcement preceded by little or no community discussion, Amazon made another move in America’s largest city. Only this time it wasn’t into a new neighborhood, but into the classroom.
The company, which has reportedly considered bailing on its much-hyped HQ2 project in NYC amid local blowback, announced it would fund computer-science classes in 130 local high schools. It also promised to offer a new cloud computing training and certificate in colleges across the region.
The pledge looked, on its face, like a generous one from the richest company in the world. But in keeping with the tech world’s reputation for swooping in from on high to engineer social change, according to the New York Times, the plan wasn’t even coordinated with the city Department of Education.
Leaving the rollout (and the future of the HQ2 project) aside, experts said a powerful company getting involved in public education represented both a significant risk and a possible boon—one that could provide jobs and opportunity but also serve to perpetuate inequality long endemic to America’s tech world. In other words, this initiative may provide a mere glimpse of the promise of upward mobility, while pushing some of the city’s most vulnerable to serve as guinea pigs in the latest scheme marrying Big Tech and the public sector.
“It’s usually the government that forms the workforce through local public school,” said Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at the City of New York Graduate Center who has studied how young people are trained for tech work. “But the public school system is struggling to fulfill a historic need, so companies are stepping in.”
In the case of Amazon, this will happen in two different ways, according to a spokesperson. The first is a program through its philanthropic arm called Amazon Future Engineers, which was intended to focus on lower-income schools. The company worked with Edhesive, an education technology and curriculum company, to develop computer-science programs and enlist teachers to carry them out. Students were to be equipped with Amazon branded materials and free access to the Amazon Web Services Cloud for their coding projects. (A spokesperson at the New York City Department of Education confirmed Amazon had not joined its existing computer-science initiatives, and instead directly reached out to schools.)
The second, cloud computing initiative for college students, was to be carried out as part of Amazon’s AWS Educate training programs. These were to be more directly geared toward fulfilling current computing jobs, including some likely to crop up the next half of this year in New York, a spokesperson told VICE. Schools were poised to voluntarily collaborate with the program to roll out the courses.
These programs aren't just charity of course: They stood to serve Amazon itself in various ways—the most obvious, perhaps, being PR. “Such efforts build goodwill, and may show a hard-edge company participating in a human way in the community—something consumers and politicians want to see,” said Mark Muro, a Brookings Institute senior fellow focused on the tech sector and inclusive economies. (The company spokesperson for the Future Engineers program said the program had nothing to do with Amazon's HQ2 plans, or the backlash to it, although they did argue it was a good move for their potential new home.)
More generously, these programs could also serve to cultivate the workforce America needs, and will continue to need, as tech monopolizes more cities. “No matter how many people live in New York, we don’t have enough people to fill all the jobs that are potentially being created,” Zukin said. RIght now, most of New York’s tech sector employs non-New Yorkers, she added.
What’s not clear is if the programs will be able to make a real dent in the larger tech industry’s stark lack of diversity and income inequality issues. In 2014, whites comprised 83.3 percent of executive positions in tech, while 68.5 percent of the industry's total workforce was white, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These philanthropic programs can often times only offer a specific skill set, Zukin noted, one that could become obsolete via automation or otherwise.
"The best kind of training is... training of all of your mental faculties for facing any kind of tech futures," she said.
Otherwise, kids who go through the these programs may still find themselves trumped by students from the private universities or elite communities where tech leaders still find many of their highest earners. And while those trained in cloud computing or other basic computer-science skills might be able to comprise a meaningful tier of employment, the dynamic that results could perpetuate the stratified workforce—and attendant housing and other problems—tech companies have already fed in many cities.
“There’s no doubt that for all of the corporate inclusion efforts and diversity goals and hundreds of millions put into them, the fundamental issue remains: it’s still difficult for many people to access tech skills, but also a kind of brogrammer culture in these big tech companies,” Muro said. “And that is going to take stringent long term efforts to unwind.”
These Amazon programs are also competing with nimble coding programs, such as General Assembly and Flatiron, which carefully select students and keep close ties to the companies where they try to find them placement. Slow-moving, bureaucratic public institutions, Zukin said, will have a hard time competing.
It’s too early to know what impact Amazon’s programs will have on the future of tech. A company spokesperson told me the future engineer programs were piloted for one year before rolling out across the country starting in November, with the largest cluster of schools in New York. But looking at how other tech companies have attempted to engage in public education offers some clues as to how things could veer off-course.
In New York, students in Brooklyn protested a Facebook-affiliated education program toward the end of last year, suggesting it was less engaging than their traditional curriculum. To make matters worse, parents worried about the program, called Summit Education, aggregating student data.
Leonie Haimson, who co-writes a blog on student privacy, pointed out that the Gates Foundation had similar issues with its $100 million education initiative, which was called out for potentially misusing student data. Both benefactors, and their contractors, disputed the idea that privacy was invaded or data was endangered. (An Amazon spokesperson said they didn’t foresee the same issues since their program is operated by Edhesive).
While Haimson said she didn’t have enough information on the Amazon program yet, she was wary because the company seemed to do awful little to engage the public school system and parents before announcing these programs.
At the HQ2 public hearing last week, many Queens residents showed up to make the same case. Whenever the topic of schools came up—Amazon was also planning to build at least one public school near its Long Island City headquarters, should the project go ahead—some in the crowd jeered and booed. City Council members, meanwhile, asked for more details, frustrated with the behind-closed-door process that brought Amazon to the city in the first place.
Muro was more optimistic. With a looming need for tech jobs ahead of us, he said, the Amazon programs being embedded in all levels of education could offer a “digital pathway” to good employment.
“Right now the number of people enrolled in computer science in high school is pretty abysmal given the size of the economy,” he said. “One certainly can applaud these investments.”
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