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Microsoft's YouthSpark, Designed To Bridge An Education Gap, Comes To Dallas

Bill Zeeble
From left: Trey Bowles, co-founder/CEO Dallas Entrepreneur Center; Cameron Evans with Microsoft; Susan Hull, Grand Prairie ISD superintendent; State Rep. Eric Johnson; Kristin Laramore with GE Capital Equipment Finance.

Texas led the nation in job growth for the fourth straight year. But in Dallas, there’s a problem.

Nearly half of the recent job openings required a bachelor’s degree, but only one-third of the population had one.

YouthSpark, an education effort from Microsoft, is designed to shrink the job gap.

North Texas businesses could hire more workers if they could find those with the right training. Employers say the need’s even higher than the national average in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math. One-fifth of Dallas jobs are in those fields.

“Sometimes, people don’t respond to action until there’s enough pain," says Cameron Evans, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for U.S. education. "We don’t want to have that happen in North Texas.” 

Evans says that’s where YouthSpark comes in. With others at the Dallas Regional Chamber, he helped introduce the Microsoft program to Dallas education and business leaders Wednesday.

“Right now, as we’re not producing enough local graduates, we’ve got a long-term gap we need to fill," Evans said.

The Brookings Institution researched the topic for Microsoft and found unemployment between ages 16 to 24 is double that of adults. It’s even higher among blacks and Hispanics. Nearly one-third of Dallasites that age are either out of work or have just a high school diploma.

Elizabeth Jones, a Dallas ISD school board member, welcomes this effort.  

“STEM is everything today,” Jones said. “Twenty years ago we saw it start to come into our employment structures. Today, technology is at the front of industry. It is the innovation. It is your future.” 

YouthSpark is a broad-based effort, targeting 50 million kids nationwide – 300 million around the world. It gives out grants to youth development groups, funds research, fosters public-private partnerships.

Kristin Laramore, strategic engagement leader with GE Capital Equipment Finance, says YouthSpark reflects a new way business is getting involved in education.  

“We’re putting our dollars together around common goals,” Laramore said. “We’re also changing to more of a skill-based volunteer approach as opposed to just painting, and planting flowers and helping from a beautification perspective. We’re getting involved in the curriculum and saying: 'Hey, these are the things we’re looking for from our future workforce.' I think that’s just changing how we’re involved.”   

Laramore says this is also just the beginning of a conversation with the two year-old YouthSpark. She expects more businesses, school districts and non-profits will get involved. Evans, with Microsoft, says they better.

“We should see far more businesses incubated here than anywhere,” Evans says, “and we should also see our employment gap between those high-wage, high-growth opportunities start to be taken by people who grew up here in Dallas, got educated in Dallas, and are demonstrating they’re successful for those jobs.”  

Evans says it’s time to step up, develop the talent and close that job gap. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.