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Digital Inclusion

105 Sill Hall
Ypsilanti, MI 48197

Jack Bidlack on turning at-risk youth on to a career in tech

A new program in downtown Ypsilanti is working on a new, innovative way to tackle a number of pressing issues on economically distressed communities, such as the digital divide and providing job skills to at-risk youth.

The Business Side of Youth, an Eastern Michigan University community outreach program, has worked to help uplift at-risk young people through social enterprise. Its most recent foray is a pop-up store focused on teaching kids about technology through hands-on experience. The goal: spark an interest in technology that could lead to a career in the industry.

"That's where the jobs are being created these days," says Jack Bidlack, director of The Business Side of Youth. "These jobs are going to be plentiful in the next few decades. Why not steer them in that direction?"

Digital Inclusion debuted this fall as a pop-up storefront in downtown Ypsilanti. There a handful of teens repaired and refurbished computers, smartphones and tablets through the holiday season. The students sold their services to fix the technology to learn new skills and get an introduction to the workforce. The enterprise just about broke even during the few weeks of its pilot program.

"We popped it up to gauge the community's interest," Bidlack says. "We had a pretty good reaction."

The Business Side of Youth, also known as the The B. Side, launched six years ago and has helped 137 at-risk young people over that time. Each semester it takes on a cohort of about a dozen at-risk teens to teach them skills in both technology and entrepreneurship.

Teaching them about technology instead of more menial labor is key to shaping their options for future work. Bidlack argues that getting them started in working with technology will not only open the door to an industry that is increasingly dominating the job market but also to getting jobs in industries across the board.

"Like most individuals today they’re adapting to what the community is demanding," Bidlack says. "Even when you fill out an application, 99 percent of the time you sit down at a computer in a kiosk."

Focusing on teens at this critical juncture in life is proving to be a case of good timing. It's at this time that they are the most open to learning about technology and adapting to new ideas.

"I wouldn't say it's easy but it’s a point of interest," Bidlack says. "Some actually pursue it and some don't. Kids are drawn to technology because they use it all the time."

- Written by Jon Zemke

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