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Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidates Stress Importance of Tech Jobs

When a new mayor is seated in January, he will take over for an administration that, for eight years, worked to link technology, robotics and artificial intelligence with an influx of startups and its major universities.

(TNS) — Pittsburgh's technological renaissance has brought accolades and adoration, a groundswell of innovation and advancement, and even attention from the White House.

It hasn't, however, benefited many of the city's own residents, the two mayoral candidates said last week.

When a new mayor is seated in January, he will take over for an administration that, for eight years, worked to link technology, robotics and artificial intelligence with an influx of startups and its major universities. The effort has effectively made Pittsburgh synonymous with the new American economy.

But in a mayoral election that has centered on inequities facing Black Pittsburghers and those in underserved communities, Democrat Ed Gainey and Republican Tony Moreno differ on how to include all residents in the city's future.

Mr. Gainey, a state lawmaker based in Lincoln-Lemington, acknowledged that the new industries are transforming the region, crediting the city and Allegheny County with utilizing the university landscape to cultivate research and development and foster an entrepreneurial spirit. But many Pittsburghers lack access and opportunity to the industries that are expanding, Mr. Gainey said.

"The reality is, if we don't connect those industries down to the neighborhoods — and everybody feels like they're a part of it — at the end of the day, whether it's the eds and meds, the robotics, the artificial intelligence or the life sciences, people are going to feel left behind," Mr. Gainey said.

Mr. Moreno, a retired Pittsburgh police officer, agrees that the growth has been unequal but sees greater opportunity in the supply chain. He questions why Pittsburgh creates the technology but ships out the manufacturing, saying people could benefit from an influx of jobs in the trades.

"They went ahead and went tech-, meds- and eds-heavy, but we don't have anybody to build that and to sustain those things," Mr. Moreno said. "We don't want to ship it out. We want to keep it here."

It's a discussion that could define the city and the region for years. As of 2019, there were nearly 10,000 technology firms in Pittsburgh employing more than 310,000 people, according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council, making it a "vibrant hub for artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and biomedical companies eager to attract talent."

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said one of the reasons the county's population grew over the past 10 years was because of an increase in job opportunities, from robotics and AI to life sciences, entertainment and food. What jumped out to him in recent census data, he said, was the increase in the 25 to 34 age group.

At the root of emerging industries are the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions of higher learning, he said, and companies such as Apple, Amazon and Argo AI. But diversifying these sectors is important, and the tech field — traditionally dominated by white men — has to move in a positive direction like the region's demographics, Mr. Fitzgerald added, noting that young people are staying and the demographic makeup is diversifying.

"It's happening. It's moving in a good direction. You're certainly seeing it occurring," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "However, there is still a gap among people who have been left out and, in many cases, the folks that have been left out are people of color, and a lot of it has to do with education starting at the earliest ages."

How to prepare Pittsburgh's youth for industries that are constantly evolving is a challenge both candidates are mulling.

Mr. Gainey said he wants to build relationships involving the mayor's office, emerging industries, universities and Pittsburgh Public Schools to shape curricula so the next generation can play a bigger role in the new economy. Those relationships don't exist now, he said, and the city can't grow if everyone's going at it alone.

Mr. Moreno said it's about making things here. He suggests targeting buildings to house tech labs, backed up by their own manufacturing hubs with their own workforces. That would help people who didn't go to college get jobs, he said, while keeping the emerging industries thriving.

"You have people who are wondering what they're going to do if they didn't go into those fields that grew," Mr. Moreno said. "Now what? Do they leave Pittsburgh or do we provide for them? I intend to grow that end."

Mr. Gainey also sees the trades playing a major role in Pittsburgh's future, saying he'd like to see Pittsburgh Public Schools prepare students for a more structured future if they choose not to attend a four-year institution after high school.

For those who don't go to college, "their classroom becomes the streets," Mr. Gainey said — and the trades and manufacturing could serve as an avenue for opportunity.

The Democrat said he would turn to experts and industry leaders to help identify manufacturing trends so his administration can connect the neighborhoods to those industries.

"We need them to teach us what manufacturing and what size of manufacturing would be successful in this city," Mr. Gainey said.

Mr. Fitzgerald said his advice to the next mayor would be to build on successes while helping to connect residents with skills, transportation and technology.

At the forefront of that effort are organizations like the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Mr. Gainey has met with leaders from the council; Mr. Moreno hasn't yet but said he's open to a meeting.

The council is developing an apprenticeship program that includes some of the ideas the candidates espouse. President and CEO Audrey Russo said leaders recently held a series of private listening sessions with more than 100 CEOs, Black elected officials and others to discuss barriers to entry in tech, learning that many people are completely disconnected from opportunities.

In response, the council helped to bring an apprenticeship program to Pittsburgh that recruits candidates from underrepresented groups who are interested in technology. Participants are paid an hourly wage to go through a software boot camp and are linked with employers from the start.

Barriers to entry are mostly alleviated; the council can help address challenges such as transportation and child care.

"We have rusted neighborhoods, and they have people with capabilities to be in this work. They just never had access. They never knew," Ms. Russo said. "They never had a pathway that takes them there."

The next mayor could be an important mouthpiece for the program, Ms. Russo said.

The election is Nov. 2. Monday is the deadline to register to vote.

© 2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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