Tech Training Takes Byte of the Big Apple

In the South Bronx neighborhood of New York — the nation’s poorest congressional district — Per Scholas trains hundreds of neighborhood residents every year for careers as IT professionals.

Founded in 1995, the workforce development company has trained more than 4,500 low-income people to become software testers or PC repair technicians for companies in the financial and telecommunications sectors. Per Scholas partners with IT consulting firm Doran Jones, also located in the South Bronx — and in the same building — to develop its training curriculum. Doran Jones even employs the organization’s graduates.

Trainees typically enter one of Per Scholas’ training programs earning only $7,000 per year. But after graduation, trainees tend to land jobs earning $30,000 per year and start to see steady increases over time,  said Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas. Career and income progression for graduates over time is one of the most important goals of the organization. The training “allows people to deal with whatever poverty issues they were dealing with to reach the middle class, if that even exists anymore,” Ayala said.

In addition to providing people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to have successful careers, jobs training programs and workforce development organizations like Per Scholas have the potential to have a positive impact on workplace diversity, especially in the tech field, which has come under scrutiny recently for the lack of minorities present in its workforce.

“Participants in jobs training programs reflect their local community. By hiring graduates of these programs, employers will get a workforce that reflects the local community,” said Mary Ellen Clark, executive director at the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, an association of 200 community-based organizations, educational institutions, and labor unions that annually provide job training and employment services to over 750,000 New Yorkers. “If a chief diversity officer wants to diversify their workforce, these are good places to go to source candidates.”

The goal of most job training programs is to provide job opportunities to those who have historically struggled to gain access to them. One of the ways job-training programs accomplish this is by partnering with local organizations to give young people the chance to apply for internships. Some organizations offer “returnships,” or a job experience intended to give somebody who has been chronically unemployed the chance to get back into the professional world.

Experts explained internships and returnships allow employers to assess potential hires as people, not stereotypes.

“When these programs are run well, they can help remove employer stereotypes about a specific population,” Ayala said. “Internships and returnships can help employers see individuals as viable potential staff, and not have their thinking clouded by stereotypes.”

In addition to internships and returnships, Jeff Artis, national director of corporate engagement at workforce development organization Year Up, said job-training programs can also have an effect on workforce diversity whenemployers turn directly to such programs to source talent, rather than simply posting open positions online. This allows job-training program graduates to circumvent applicant trackingsystems.

“HR recruiting systems screen people out. Not necessarily on purpose, but just because it’s impossible to go through a thousand résumés. They make workloads manageable,” Artis said. “A jobs-training program married with a corporation gives recruiters a way to get through the noise, find those people geared toward their specific requirements. A recruiter can go to a training facility and say, ‘Here’s what I want.’ It makes recruiting much easier.”

Industry experts emphasized that while the goal of workforce development organizations is to close the opportunity divide for less-privileged Americans, they don’t expect corporations to hire their graduates out of pity. Programs like Per Scholas and Year Up have had success placing a high percentage of their graduates because they possess the technical and soft skills that companies crave. Year Up, like Per Scholas, offers technology-based jobs training programs.

“A company hires us for a reason. It’s not about outsourcing. That doesn’t work,” Ayala said. “I’m not going to a company saying please just hire one person from a very tough community. I’m saying I’m giving you a talent that’s going to save you in recruitment costs, turnover costs, it’s going to help your bottom line, and as a result you’ll be a stronger company.”

Paradigm Shift

Job-training programs have not historically been considered successful.

“It’s not because there was a lack of people trying to pull it off. I just think the approach was wrong,” Ayala said.

The curriculum of a classic job-training program would have been developed without input from employers, experts explained. As a result, large amounts of people were being trained for jobs that no longer exist, or learning antiquated skills, experts explained.

One area of the economy that has suffered because of poor training on behalf of both the traditional education system and job-training programs is the technology sector.

The U.S. may be short as many as 3 million high-skills workers by 2018. A high-skilled worker is considered to be somebody with an educational background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This labor shortage in STEM-related fields is being addressed by the Obama administration’s job-training programs like Per Scholas or Year Up.

In the fall of 2014, the White Houseannounced that federal grants became available to organizations that create apprenticeship positions for many fast-growing occupations and industries with open positions — IT, health care and advanced manufacturing — to meet their skilled workforce needs.

Experts said workforce development organizations have made similar changes to their training approaches in recent years by working closely with employers to create programs that create the talent necessary to fill empty jobs.

This approach has been corroborated by independent studies on the subject.

“Successful training programs often rely on input from or partnerships with employers and industry partners in order to direct trainees to invest in courses and fields of study relevant to available jobs. Without this type of collaboration, newly trained or retrained workers may find themselves without the skills needed by industry, skills that are required for long-lasting labor market success,” according to a 2011 report published by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to creating effective workforce training programs, experts said workforce development organizations need to look at labor trends and use economic data to make training decisions, while also making adjustments along the way.

It’s not enough for programs to train thousands of web-coders to fill STEM jobs, Ayala said. That approach would over-saturate the talent pool and do nothing to alleviate unemployment for program graduates.

The NYC Employment and Training Coalition’s Clark praised Per Scholas for their approach to IT training. 

“It prepares people for where there are jobs. There was no curriculum, and there are no credentials for software quality testing,” Clark said. Per Scholas “created this curriculum to train people to get them into well-paying computer jobs so they can then transition into other things. It gets their foot in the door, and they’re doing it in the hardest hit area of New York City.”

As a result, residents of the South Bronx have an opportunity to rise above poverty, and New York corporations are discovering a richer pool of IT talent.

“We’ve debunked the notion that people from poor communities cannot access these jobs, or that they have the ability to perform well in these jobs,” Ayala said. “It’s never been an issue of capacity, it’s an issue of opportunity for people from disconnected communities to get into the world of work.”

College Costs

Ever since the GI. Bill helped veterans returning from World War II attend college, many Americans have followed a similar educational path of going to high school and college before finding a job in the professional world. 

“That’s not the case anymore,” said Ayala, pointing to rising tuition costs and a collective hesitation by young people to take on a large amount of debt to pay for college, which may contribute to a recent decline in college enrollment. Between 2012 and 2013, college enrollment declined by close to half a million, according to a 2014 United States Census Bureau report. 

Because of the rising cost of a collegeeducation, job-training programs have the potential to provide an effective alternative to train the country’s future workforce. Such programs also offer minority populations that have historically had limited access to opportunities to attend college.

At the college level, 58 percent of students were non-Latino white. Latino people were 16.5 percent, black people 15 percent and Asian people 8.1 percent of the total college population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

“What jobs training programs do is bridge that gap between the higher education system — and in many cases many people who didn’t go through the higher education system — and the specific needs that corporations have,” Artis said.

But part of bridging that education gap comes with bridging the so-called “digital divide” first. The digital divide is a phrase that refers to the disparities of Internet access along racial, ethnic, socioeconomic status and education.

In 2012, 68 percent of African-American and 64 percent of Hispanic Americans used the Internet, compared with 80 percent and 83 percent of their white and Asian counterparts, respectively. The digital divide is also related to education, as people with at least a bachelor’s degree are about twice as likely to access the Internet at home than high school dropouts, according to a 2014 report titled “The Future of Millennial Jobs” issued by Young Invincibles, a nonprofit organization that works to expand economic opportunity for young adults.

Closing the digital divide is critical to ensuring minority populations have equal access to educational opportunities.

By just 2020, approximately 65 percent of future job openings will require at least some post-secondary degree, and one can only expect this trend will continue far beyond, according to the same report. 

However, successful job training programs have brought into question the necessity of a higher-education degree, as organizations like Per Scholas and Year Up have demonstrated through their placement levels. Eighty-six percent of Year Up’s graduates are employed within four months of graduation, and just this year, Doran Jones hired 150 Per Scholas graduates for software testing jobs.

Job training programs can offer an alternative pathway to a successful careerinstead of the traditional four-year degree or graduate degree.

“As our economy becomes more specialized, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t know how to read and write,” Ayala said. “I’m suggesting people don’t need a masters’ degree to fix a computer or set up a network.”