Inspiring Success

A blog from Creating IT Futures

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May 21, 2012

Behind the Scenes of IT-Ready

By Charles Eaton

On May 5, 2012, I celebrated my youngest son’s third birthday. Like most little kids’ birthdays, Shane’s party was filled with laughter, messiness and running — lots of running. Two days later I celebrated another birth that will rank up there as one of the most significant milestones of my life: On May 7, Creating IT Futures’ IT-Ready Apprentice Program was born.

Like any “birth,” this one had many months of gestation and preparation.

In a nutshell, /developing-programs/it-ready" target="_blank">IT-Ready targets unemployed or under-employed adults and readies them for an entry-level position in the information technology (IT) field. In eight weeks the program mixes professional soft-skills with technical training, preparing the participant for the CompTIA A+ certification exam and a six-month paid apprenticeship with a local company.

The result, we hope, is a new group of workers who have the know-how and the on-the-job experience provided by the apprenticeship to find permanent IT work and embark on a long career in technology. The IT field has hundreds of thousands of positions unfilled nationwide and chronic difficulty ramping up quickly when growth is needed in new technology areas. By taking adult workers from other industries and training them for jobs in IT, even entry-level ones, we can deepen the talent pool and provide high-paying jobs and a career path that many never dreamed possible.

For over a year we researched organizations that were focused on adult workforce development. What we found were a few success stories amidst an overall bleak landscape. Workforce development, it turns out, has a lot of moving parts. Things can go wrong at a number of points along the assembly line.  

The organizations that were succeeding taught us a lot: We looked at programs that worked with young urban adults, such as Year Up, which focuses as much on professional skills (sometimes called “soft” skills—interviewing, communicating in a corporate atmosphere, for example) as on technical training. Their graduates end up with a much higher chance of success than programs that neglect this key area.

We spent time with Per Scholas, a New York City-based organization that has put thousands of adults of all ages to work in the IT industry. Per Scholas showed us how all the details matter, from the professional atmosphere of a training facility to the zero tolerance policies that force participants to show intense commitment to the training. We also learned the importance of going beyond counting outputs (things like number of classes taught, number of clients served) to measuring meaningful outcomes of a training and employment program. (You can read one of their reports here.)

From Fast Forward in Columbia, S.C., we learned the importance of offering both online and in-class opportunities, and how programs need to adapt to meet participants where they are.

As much as we learned from the success stories, we learned from the programs that failed in one or more areas.

We learned that screening our participants — and even screening the cities where our program might be piloted — is vital to ensure a reasonably high chance of success. It didn’t make sense to set up a large number of people for failure.  Instead, we focused on making a smaller group of dedicated individuals successful in their efforts to join the IT ranks.

So, for our first IT-Ready program locations of Cincinnati and Minneapolis / St. Paul, we chose cities that had the right mix of IT jobs, community-focused employers, and individuals who needed our service. Furthermore, we resolved to line up the apprenticeship opportunities ourselves, recruiting employers so that we wouldn’t leave this important aspect to chance. (YearUp does something similar in creating six-month internships for its participants, with terrific results.)

And we used a screening process for would-be participants that ensures dedication to the training, interpersonal and customer service skills, a high level of digital literacy, and a desire to find a career in the technical side of IT.

Mixed in with what we feel are proven best practices are a few spaces of experimentation: Eight weeks is a short amount of training time compared to, say, a degree program that can last two years. It’s even shorter than other IT workforce development programs that gear their students toward certification.

But we knew that several training programs went unused precisely because of their length. Many adults just couldn’t commit to that long of a program when they needed to be earning money for their families sooner rather than later.

What will be our measure of success? First, we want a high percentage of our participants to graduate, pass their A+ certification exam, and do well in their apprenticeships leading to permanent full-time work in the IT field. Second, we want to get our per-trainee costs down so that our model can be scaled in a sustainable fashion. Dozens of new workers each year is great, but the IT industry has thousands of positions needing to be filled.

We’re not going to get there overnight, but we feel we’re off to a great start. On May 7, 2012, 24 adults started their journey with us as our training classes launched in Cincinnati and the Twin Cities. As with each of my children, I look forward to celebrating every IT-Ready birthday moving forward as the program grows and matures.

To get involved with IT-Ready as an employer of an apprentice in Cincinnati and/or the Twin Cities, please contact Amy Spear, Senior Manager, National Workforce Programs, at aspear@comptia.org.