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July 23, 2020

How a Texas Workforce Board Narrows the Tech Skills Gap with IT Training for Army Veterans

The U.S. tech sector is still hiring – despite the pandemic – posting hundreds of thousands of ads for open IT positions.


Where will these companies find qualified candidates to fill these jobs – especially when our nation’s tech skills gap remains a challenge?


One source: Military veterans.


In a recent episode of CompTIA’s award-winning Technologist Tales podcast, produced for Creating IT Futures, Leila Melendez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, a workforce board operating in El Paso, Texas, tells the tale of helping 95 U.S. Army veterans transition to new tech careers with support from CompTIA Custom Training.


Borderplex is a neighbor of one-million-acre Fort Bliss, the largest Army training ground in the nation with an estimated impact on the local economy of $1 billion. Thousands of Army personnel live and work at Fort Bliss, with hundreds of these veterans transitioning into civilian life each month through the El Paso community.


CompTIA Custom Training helps Borderplex train many Fort Bliss veterans for IT jobs, such as cybersecurity, and launch new careers as technologists.


In the second half of a conversation with Technologist Talk host R.C. “Bob” Dirkes at CompTIA’s ChannelCon, Melendez continues her tale about narrowing the tech skills gap in El Paso and other communities with aspiring technologists from the ranks of military veterans.


Here's an edited transcript:


Leila Melendez: Absolutely, Fort Bliss is a huge opportunity for us to capture that workforce. And that is why these programs are just so popular for that population. The key is providing them with the content in a not-rushed manner. You can't take a class like this overnight, you can't do this in a week. You shouldn't take this class in a week.


Bob Dirkes: Every individual is going to have different needs, they're going to have different values, they're going to have different desires for their career, but the one thing that you are providing in every case is a broader spectrum of options.


Leila: That's right. Just giving them the access, giving them the opportunity to make a choice and not be stuck in the typical rut… of a vanilla offering.


It could be easy to just treat everybody the same and just check the boxes and meet the measures and follow the law, follow the rules. And I'm not saying that we don't follow the law. We follow the law, but that's the base… and we could just provide the base. What we do is tailor that, on top of that, supplement that, and in this case, we customize this to that population.


We funded it. We paid for it. We provide them with equipment and the venue, and all these things and we supported them. But it was that very organic thing that happens… as a group [they] got themselves through the 12 weeks of the training. They relied on one another, and they got each other through it.


We hosted some events where some employers came in and spoke with them. We circulated resumes to employers in El Paso. [The students] knew how competitive they were becoming with every certificate that they were getting. So, they were also promoting themselves and applying for jobs on their own. And they were sharing those things with one another. And they were encouraging one another, "Hold out, go talk to this employer and talk to that employer." And they were being recruited.


One individual got a six-figure offer from a company, and that was just amazing. When we learned about that, we said, "Wow. That'" It wasn't in El Paso, but it was amazing to see that, but we told [the individual], "Go! What are you waiting for?"


[Students] that did stay in El Paso – and those that moved to other cities – they did that for different reasons. The point was that what they got, the certificate that they [earned] allowed them to do that. They were portable, and they could compete anywhere. And that gave them the choice of where to live. And so, the outcomes, numbers, salaries were different. But for us, it was the fact that every single one of those [students] had a choice. A choice that they didn't have, or was much less attainable, 12 weeks before when the class was just starting.


The outcomes for us were amazing because all of them got what they wanted. And what they each wanted was different. But that's the mission. That's the goal… Whatever it is that they want to get, they are able to get because of the services and the programs that we can design for them.


Bob: How would you describe what CompTIA has brought to you to be able to accomplish that mission?


Leila: [CompTIA Custom Training has] opened up a lot of opportunities for not only our organization, but the different people that we are serving with our training program.


Their willingness to design [training] as we needed it was tremendously important. And because of the success… every time they've come back, and we've talked to them, [they bring] a new idea, “What if we did this? What if we did that?”


There's just this constant, “Let's do it. Yeah. Let's provide that for you” [attitude.]


We've been able to do this [training] for other adults that are not veterans or transitioning soldiers… Now, we're serving at-risk youth that, some of them never got their high school diploma, are now getting their high school diploma and getting A+ [CompTIA certification] and are able to get a job.


Now, we're able to serve different populations and different people for different goals and different outcomes.


So, it started with [CompTIA’s] willingness to design the programs based on what we needed for the group and the size. And every single one of those are different in timetables, different in sizes, different in venues... All of them are different. And we've been able to use [this CompTIA] model with other programs, not only the CompTIA programs, but with other education programs, other engineering, manufacturing programs.


Bob: So, what's next for you and for Borderplex? And how do you see CompTIA's Custom Training helping you?


Leila: In the first class that we did, there were 18 individuals, but only one of those was a woman.


And that is something that I really want to focus on. That's something that's very important to me… trying to increase the number of women in technology and in male-dominated roles or jobs.


I also think that there is an opportunity for us with CompTIA to think about how we are going to serve our future generations. …In El Paso in particular, we have a unique opportunity to serve a bilingual population. Just as we are trying to make an effort and encourage more women into technology, [we should] encourage bilingual speakers into technology… [by learning] in a blended-language environment.


That's going to be something that I think is another opportunity for our region… perhaps CompTIA can help us start a solution.


Technologist Tales is produced for Creating IT Futures, CompTIA’s tech workforce charity, as a complement to the award-winning Technologist Talk podcast, featuring conversations with business leaders, workforce professionals and talent developers about shaping the careers of today’s and tomorrow’s technology workers.


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