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
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.

What We're Following See More »
House Ethics Committee Sanctions Meadows, Kihuen
12 minutes ago

The House Ethics Committee has formally sanctioned Reps. Mark Meadows and Ruben Kihuen over sexual harassment-related allegations. "Meadows was found to have violated House rules 'by failing to take appropriate steps to ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination.'" Meadows will have to pay over $40,000 to cover the cost of former chief of staff Kenny West's salary, who remained on his payroll even after Meadows' learned "of credible harassment allegations against the former aide. ... Kihuen, who announced his retirement as the #MeToo movement swept Capitol Hill last year, was found to have 'made persistent and unwanted advances towards women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.'"

Trump To Nominate Andrew Wheeler To Lead EPA
23 minutes ago

"President Trump said he plans to nominate Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the EPA's Senate-confirmed administrator." Wheeler took over as acting administrator in July, "when then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned amid numerous spending and ethics scandals. ... Before working for the government, Wheeler was a lobbyist and lawyer for energy companies such as coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp."

Trump Says He's Completed Answers to Mueller's Questions
2 hours ago
Grassley Will Chair Judiciary Committee, Leave Finance
4 hours ago
DeVos Overhauls Guidance to Colleges on Sex Misconduct Cases
5 hours ago

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has updated the Obama administration's controversial rules on how colleges handle claims of sexual misconduct by students under Title IX. "The proposed new rules aim to significantly enhance legal protections for the accused, and reflect a sentiment expressed personally by President Trump that men are being unfairly presumed guilty." The rules, which must undergo a public comment period, would allow schools to elevate the burden of proof in sex cases to "clear and convincing evidence." They would also permit cross-examination, and lift time limits on investigations.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.