Phao Thor had a dream: Enlist in the Army, and then use G.I. benefits to attend and graduate from college with a degree in computer science.
But three years into Thor’s military service, an unexpected and life-changing event forced him to seek a hardship discharge before his enlistment was complete in order to financially provide for his family.
“It forced me to place my dreams and goals on hold,” he said.
Thor’s exit from the Army started an odyssey of sorts — a series of underpaid jobs that included selling vacuum cleaners, delivering newspapers and waiting tables. He worked this assortment of jobs — each one lasting about one year — for nearly a decade.
“I felt like I was searching for a career, but I did not know where to look and what I needed to do,” he said.
Facing his milestone birthday of 30, Thor assessed where he was in life. And he wasn’t satisfied.
“All of a sudden, 10 years had passed,” he said. “My family’s life was more stable, but my life and my income were not stable. I had just left a job as a security officer. Looking through old photos, I saw one of my younger self in an Army uniform and I remembered how I had enlisted to earn money for college. Even though I didn’t have a computer science degree, I decided to try to work in IT. I personally knew quite a bit about computers — I was the family computer guy and spent a lot of time building and repairing them.”
It was while searching for an entry-level information technology position on CareerBuilder that Thor found an ad promoting an upcoming IT-Ready class in Eagan, Minn., in 2012.
IT-Ready is a program of Creating IT Futures, an IT workforce charity founded by CompTIA. It provides eight weeks of intensive, classroom-based IT education and training completely free of charge to admitted students from target audiences that include under-employed and displaced workers, as well as women and ethnic minorities under-represented in the tech industry.
IT-Ready teaches skills such as building a computer from parts, installing software, troubleshooting problems and setting up and managing networks. Students also learn softer professional skills such as communication, teamwork, customer service and job interviewing. At the end of the eight-week education program, students take the CompTIA A+ certification exam.
It was the promise of potential CompTIA A+ certification that caught Thor’s eye.
“Lacking certification and education, I could not find a job in the field,” Thor said. “Getting A+ certification was the main reason I applied. But I came out with far more than I would ever have expected.”
In addition to learning IT skills that equipped him for tech work, Thor came to appreciate that the college degree he always assumed he needed for an upwardly mobile IT career wasn’t really necessary.
“IT-Ready taught me one very important lesson: That everything I learned throughout my life was just as important as the technical skills I was developing,” he said. “Those 10 years were not a waste of time. Accepting that fact has made me much stronger.”
After graduating from IT-Ready and earning his CompTIA A+ certification, Thor secured full-time employment as a technical support representative with Pearson VUE at its corporate headquarters in Bloomington, Minn.
He started by providing basic help desk support, troubleshooting customers’ issues with software and hardware and gradually took on more responsibility. He also took advantage of Pearson VUE’s professional development offerings for employees, learning website design and Java programming. With his newfound knowledge, he created a simple graphical user interface that allowed his co-workers to quickly connect to customers’ remote computers. Outside work, he used his knowledge to develop websites and programs for his church and community volunteer groups.
Thor enjoyed working at Pearson VUE and could have crafted a long-term career there.
“Pearson VUE offered a stable career and income, and I really like my team,” he said. “But I wanted to start a freelancing programming career.”
So last October, after working at Pearson VUE for nearly five years, Thor resigned to launch his own programming company. His tenure at Pearson VUE allowed Thor to pay off all personal debt, including his mortgage, as well as save enough money to survive the austerity that accompanies the start of a small business.
Starting his own business is a dream come true, Thor said. Not only is he now pursuing programming, his IT passion, but he has more time to travel the world, something he’s always wanted to do.
“I saved more than enough money to live a minimal lifestyle for four years and still travel,” he said. “In October, I traveled to China for three weeks. It was the first time I have ever traveled to another country.”
Thor said he is grateful for IT-Ready giving him the skills and the confidence he needed to blaze his own IT career path.
“If it wasn’t for the IT-Ready program, I would never have been able to re-live my dream again,” he said.