Training Disadvantaged Kids for Hotshot IT Jobs

A New York not-for-profit helps high school grads and veterans find work in the lucrative information-technology sector by teaching them both technical and communication skills.

A computer engineer at work.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 15, 2014, 4:30 a.m.

This is the fourth piece in a weeklong series that ex­am­ines pro­grams around the coun­try that try to tackle the un­em­ploy­ment crisis and keep Amer­ic­ans con­nec­ted to the work­force.

Ima­gine a tech­nic­al job-train­ing pro­gram where, after work­ing a full day in the of­fice of your would-be em­ploy­er, you’re re­quired to at­tend night classes on so­cial skills; skim The New York Times; and read books on of­fice polit­ics such as The No As­shole Rule. That fren­et­ic pace lasts for nine months.

But, at the end of it, you will have a well-pay­ing job in in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy. Guar­an­teed. That’s be­cause your fu­ture em­ploy­er has already signed a con­tract with the train­ing ser­vice to put you through this rig­or­ous pro­gram. That com­pany has made a down pay­ment on you. Work­force Op­por­tun­ity Ser­vices, a non­profit based in New York City, will make good on the firm’s in­vest­ment.

WOS has upen­ded the tra­di­tion­al mod­el of a job-place­ment non­profit. The group first re­cruits the em­ploy­ers who cre­ate the job open­ings. Then it finds dis­ad­vant­aged young adults and mil­it­ary vet­er­ans to fill those jobs. (A more typ­ic­al job train­ing ser­vice mod­el hap­pens the oth­er way around: The cli­ents are the job seekers, and pro­fes­sion­al job coun­selors help match those people with em­ploy­ers.)

At WOS, the em­ploy­er is the cli­ent; The group has landed some big names such as Pruden­tial Fin­an­cial, Mer­ck, John­son & John­son, Ho­ri­zon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jer­sey, and Hew­lett Pack­ard, to name a few.

As it turns out, both the cli­ents and the non­profit train­ers be­lieve that un­der­stand­ing cur­rent events and the quirk­i­ness of of­fice en­vir­on­ments is just as im­port­ant as un­der­stand­ing soft­ware code. Read­ing as­sign­ments and weekly journ­al writ­ing are parts of a 360-de­gree train­ing pro­gram in­ten­ded to trans­form dis­ad­vant­aged young people — those who might have a hard time nav­ig­at­ing cor­por­ate cul­ture — in­to pro­duct­ive, even hot­shot, em­ploy­ees.

That’s im­port­ant be­cause youth un­em­ploy­ment re­mains high in this still-re­cov­er­ing eco­nomy. Un­em­ploy­ment rates for people ages 16 to 24 hov­er around 16 per­cent, twice as high as the over­all un­em­ploy­ment rate. It’s worse for minor­it­ies. WOS fo­cuses on this hard-to-em­ploy pop­u­la­tion — high school gradu­ates, dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents at tech­nic­al or com­munity col­leges, and vet­er­ans. Many of them do not have much, or any, pro­fes­sion­al work ex­per­i­ence. This makes them not-ideal can­did­ates in a buy­er’s mar­ket, where em­ploy­ers can pick and choose among over­qual­i­fied people.

Work­force Op­por­tun­ity Ser­vices founder Art Langer, a Columbia Uni­versity pro­fess­or, saw raw tal­ent in these tough-to-em­ploy pop­u­la­tions based on his own aca­dem­ic re­search, in which he fol­lowed the lives of 47 low-in­come adults in the Har­lem area of New York City.

Langer found that that this group of people had a good ca­pa­city to un­der­stand “work­place lit­er­acy” — i.e., ba­sic job re­quire­ments, tech­no­logy, and busi­ness cul­ture — but they needed help broad­en­ing their per­spect­ives to take in mul­tiple points of view and de­vel­op pro­fes­sion­al in­de­pend­ence. “His­tor­ic­ally, this group winds up in un­der­em­ployed situ­ations,” said Bri­an Wat­son, WOS’s dir­ect­or of busi­ness out­reach. “We tell [em­ploy­ers], ‘This is a great tal­ent pool. We can help you tap in­to it.’ “

Wat­son spends a lot of time court­ing IT ex­ec­ut­ives who are in a po­s­i­tion to cre­ate jobs. A former tech journ­al­ist, he goes to busi­ness con­fer­ences and talks to chief in­form­a­tion of­ficers about their staff­ing. WOS tries to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it­self from for-profit staff­ing com­pan­ies by dig­ging in deep­er to un­der­stand what the firms ac­tu­ally need and in­cor­por­at­ing that in­to the cur­riculum. Gen­er­ally, WOS charges up to $50 per hour to train IT de­velopers and $40 per hour for pro­ject man­agers, on top of the up­front in­vest­ment to fund the train­ing pro­gram tu­ition and con­sult­ing work.

Pruden­tial has been us­ing WOS ser­vices since 2005, help­ing the com­pany achieve two of its goals — good works and sol­id em­ploy­ment plan­ning. “It’s also path­way of cor­por­ate fu­tures for in­di­vidu­als who would not nor­mally have those op­por­tun­it­ies. That’s the so­cial-re­spons­ib­il­ity ele­ment,” said Dele Olad­apo, vice pres­id­ent and chief in­form­a­tion of­ficer for the hu­man re­sources de­part­ment at Pruden­tial Fin­an­cial, a WOS cli­ent. “The busi­ness op­por­tun­ity for us was ad­dress­ing IT pipelin­ing is­sues that we had.”

Pruden­tial’s re­la­tion­ship with WOS began when Langer was first hon­ing his idea of tap­ping in­ner-city youth for a grow­ing short­age of IT work­ers. It took a year for Pruden­tial ex­ec­ut­ives and WOS of­fi­cials to hit on a strategy for re­cruit­ing New York City high school gradu­ates. Pruden­tial has now seen 300 train­ees go through the pro­gram and has about 60 on staff. The av­er­age salary for a WOS gradu­ate is around $43,000, but some gradu­ates have been hired for salar­ies as high as $60,000.

Once a con­tract with a com­pany is in place, WOS be­gins se­lect­ing people for train­ing. Hun­dreds of can­did­ates ap­ply for just a few slots, which means a lot of people get turned away. WOS ac­cepts one-tenth or less of the ap­plic­ants for po­s­i­tions with­in cer­tain pro­gram. In At­lanta, a pro­gram for 14 work­ers at­trac­ted 300 ap­plic­a­tions.

The train­ee se­lec­tion pro­cess is as in­tense as the ac­tu­al train­ing. Ap­plic­ants have mul­tiple phone in­ter­views and are in­vited to classroom ex­er­cises in com­mu­nic­a­tion and crit­ic­al think­ing. “I thought it was in­tim­id­at­ing” said Dav­id Ver­gara, who went through the pro­gram in 2007. He is now a sys­tems and de­vel­op­ment ana­lyst for Pruden­tial’s Glob­al Busi­ness and Tech­no­logy Solu­tions di­vi­sion. Since he fin­ished the WOS pro­gram, he has com­pleted his tech­nic­al de­gree and is seek­ing a bach­el­or’s de­gree at Rut­gers Uni­versity in New Jer­sey.

“They didn’t look at your past, your ex­per­i­ence, how well you did back in high school…. They star­ted from scratch and wanted to see that you were am­bi­tious,” he said.

Train­ees take classes in the rel­ev­ant com­puter tech­no­logy, math ba­sics, and lan­guage skills. But they also must take a course for nine months on in­ter­per­son­al com­mu­nic­a­tions. The stu­dents work on lan­guage, writ­ing, gram­mar, and pub­lic speak­ing. They write weekly as­sign­ments that an­swer ques­tions like “How have you handled con­flict?” or “De­scribe your level of self-es­teem.”

Stu­dents say that the WOS classes on “soft skills” are far more chal­len­ging than the courses teach­ing spe­cif­ic com­puter or math skills. “I was very quiet at first, but that class that we had, they kind of forced us to grow our com­mu­nic­a­tion skills. I think that was a great help to me,” said Kavan Pa­tel, who works as a sys­tems ana­lyst in the same Pruden­tial di­vi­sion as Ver­gara.

Heightened self-aware­ness and self-man­age­ment are goals of this class, and it is one of the factors that sets WOS apart. “We have found over the years that people don’t ne­ces­sar­ily lose em­ploy­ment be­cause of tech­no­logy. They lose it be­cause they can’t man­age them­selves or their in­ter­ac­tions with oth­er people,” said Ad­die Rim­mer, the group’s dir­ect­or of stu­dent learn­ing.

Stu­dents who en­roll in the pro­gram of­ten ask WOS re­cruit­ers, “What’s the catch?” The catch, says Wat­son, is that you’re go­ing to have to work very, very hard. The ad­vant­age, however, is that you get a ca­reer in the fast-grow­ing field at the end of it.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle misid­en­ti­fied one of the cor­por­ate cli­ents of Work­force Op­por­tun­ity Ser­vices. The cor­rect name of the cli­ent is Ho­ri­zon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jer­sey.

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