Creating Tech Career Pathways in Rural Communities

Written by Allen Hillery | A conversation with Jacob Martinez, founder and Executive Director of Digital NEST

Jacob Martinez is the Founder and Executive director of Digital NEST. NEST stands for Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skill with Technology. Digital NEST is a workforce development hub that has been successfully helping young people in rural CA communities find well-paying jobs.

Several months ago, I created a call to action to address how data literacy can be leveraged to provide better career opportunities for underserved communities. I believe having a familiarity and ease with data is a critical skill set that will help us navigate a changing workforce. Ever since I became involved in looking for ways to create career pathways in tech for young adults, I’ve been on the lookout for how others are solving this challenge. 

Jacob Martinez, Executive Director of Digital NEST, is one of these individuals taking on the challenge. Digital NEST is a youth workforce development and empowerment center located in Watsonville and Salinas, CA. Their mission is to connect youth to a skill-building community that supports their transformation into professionals who can create successful careers, innovative solutions and build prosperous communities. In 2014, Jacob launched Digital NEST in Watsonville after seeing a young woman outside in the cold using free wifi to do her homework. He was moved and determined to take action. Armed with a plan to build a cool, hip and comfortable space for young people in his community, Digital NEST was born. 

Jacob and his team have been experiencing tremendous growth since they opened their doors six years ago, with no signs of slowing down. They have provided more than 2,000 young people with access to free tech and workforce skills training in areas such as web development, project management and digital arts. In 2017, they opened a second location in Salinas, CA. Today they are relocating Salinas downtown to a historic firehouse and just announced a third location in Gilroy, CA! 

Digital NEST Salinas is moving downtown to a historic former firehouse. The location and larger space will position them to better support the community by training more youth and promoting their talent to local businesses.

What’s Digital NEST’s origin story?

So how did this well funded tech environment come to be? Jacob tells this story with a mixture of pride, passion and nostalgia. Like an eagle preparing a nest for their fledglings, he wanted the best for the youth of Watsonville. As he started putting together his business plan, he reflected on site visits he made with his past students to tech companies like Facebook and Google. This is when he thought of creating a co-working space for 14-24 year olds. He shared, “If this environment works for adults to spark innovation and creativity, why not youth?” He set out to create an environment for the kids that would have the coolest furniture and equipment, while sparing no costs. Providing this safe harbor for students to receive education and training unhindered by challenges, like not having wifi to complete assignments, became the Digital Nest brand. 

“When you create an environment where youth feel respected, like they belong, and have a supportive community, they can envision a different future for themselves.”

Jacob Martinez

How does the program help youth get jobs? 

Digital NEST employs a hands-on approach to training that incites their students talents and passions. Their job training and career development program consists of three pillars:

  • Digital Arts and Technology (DAT)
  • Web and Information Technology (WIT)
  • People, Project and Leadership (PPL).

Courses available to students include film and video, web design and development, and project management. 

It’s important to Jacob and team to encourage the youth to remain local once they have completed the program, helping to enrich their community. That’s why they have created the perfect bridge program with bizzNEST. BizzNEST is the technology and digital creative youth agency that gives Digital NEST graduates the hands on and project based learning they need to enter the job market with a ready-made portfolio. Once students have completed their training, they spend a year working with bizzNEST. Jacob shared the career pathway of Remy Rodriguez. Remy became a Video Member Consultant after graduating from high school. While there he built up his portfolio working on client projects and even took on freelance gigs. He went on to intern at the City of Watsonville and is currently a Digital Design Marketing Manager at Second Harvest Food Bank. Jacob explained how this is a win-win situation for both Remy and Wastonville. While Remy has been able to find career opportunities, local businesses like Second Harvest are able to acquire highly skilled talent. The probability of finding qualified talent is higher because of organizations like Digital NEST.

Jacob shared how local youth who are invested in their community will be more motivated in coming up with innovative solutions that will see their neighborhood prosper. BizzNEST was able to launch crucial projects that address the Spanish-speaking community and local businesses early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have received recognition for producing a Spanish-language COVID-19 informational video for a local community health organization, Salud Para La Gente. They also created a small business directory to inform the community of which businesses were still open and the status of their operations. When most non-profits were making plans to reduce their workforce during the onset of a world pandemic, Digital NEST had the opposite strategy. Even with COVID-19 threatening life as they knew it, the community needed to be served. 

How to build a nest.

When evaluating a city to build a nest, Digital NEST keeps sustainability and scalability top of mind. Jacob’s goal is to stop the brain drain in communities like Watsonville by equipping young people with the skills needed to help local employers. When considering the prospects of a future workforce, Jacob and team look at census data to understand the size of the community and percentage of young people in the area. 

Once this criteria has been met, the team begins to analyze the location. One requirement for a new nest is to have anchored companies in the area. This is important for job creation. Another factor to consider is the community’s distance from an urban center. This is imperative in balancing the need to prevent the area’s brain drain and understand that there will be young people who want to work in a business center like Silicon Valley.

Jacob ultimately plans to surround the SF Bay Area with 9 digital nests that will be strategically placed with the goal of getting Silicon Valley’s attention. He, like the rest of us, has heard the calls from Silicon Valley for more diverse and technical talent. Jacob is confident and proud of the cohorts that have flown the nest. As he sees it, “We have all these brilliant young people in these communities that are skilled, talented and diverse.”

Digital NEST keeps sustainability and scalability top of mind when considering locations for a NEST. Over the next decade, Jacob sees a network of NESTs fully built in Northern CA and burgeoning Southern locations around Los Angeles. He doesn’t plan to stop until they are sprawled across the state.  

Digital NEST has taken flight.

Jacob has built an awesome workforce development program that is thriving. He and the Digital NEST team have been able to devise a proven education to work model that is scalable and sustainable. Investing in a cool and hip space that provides security for young people to strive for economic equality made all the difference with their success. In addition,  they’ve created career programs that align with the needs of the business community. I believe they are well on their way to getting Silicon Valley to look up and see the eagles circling the sky.

“I think going forward with our growth we’re going to go north, so we can surround Silicon Valley and start putting pressure on them to start looking at our talent and taking us seriously.”

Jacob Martinez

To learn more about Digital NEST, check out their website at https://digitalnest.org/ and follow Jacob Martinez on LinkedIn.

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