CompTIA gives unemployed a fresh start with computer job training

An IT industry trade association is doing computer job training the old-fashioned way -- with face-to-face education and hands-on apprenticeships.

Jarvis Madlung spent the months of May and June, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in an intensive computer job training course called the IT-Ready Apprentice Program. He was lucky -- one of only 25 students out of 450 applicants accepted into the inaugural program designed to jumpstart an IT career. With the coursework completed and certified as a computer technician, he's begun a six-month paid IT apprenticeship at the Wisconsin location of Covidien Plc, a medical device maker, where he makes $15 an hour while he learns on the job. At 40, Madlung is eager for a fresh start, as he put it. "Some people had been out of work for a long time."

Jarvis MadlungJarvis Madlung

Up until eight months ago, Madlung had worked 12 years for Bayport, Minn.-based Andersen Windows, first in its environmental engineering compliance department, and when that job was eliminated, in production. With a degree in environmental engineering technology, he had hopes of landing another job at Andersen that was closer to his interests, but in December he became a casualty of the slow housing market and was permanently laid off. He had taken a few computer classes at a local community college over the years, but when the unemployed Madlung went looking for IT jobs, he found they all required work experience.

"That's what drew me to this program," Madlung said. Not only would the IT-Ready program train him to be a certified computer technician, but "it also offered an internship on the back end, so I could get experience."

From online to face-to-face technology job training

IT-Ready is the marquee program of The Creating IT Futures Foundation, whose mission is to provide computer job training to people who might not otherwise find their way in to a career in IT. That's been the foundation's goal since it was established by the nonprofit Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) of Downers Grove, Ill., back in 1998. Until recently, the mission was largely fulfilled by giving qualified applicants vouchers for online training programs that prepared them for IT certifications, including the foundational A+ certification awarded by CompTIA. But, in 2011, board members felt it was time to try a different direction.

Charles Eaton Charles Eaton,
executive director,
Creating IT Futures
Foundation

"The foundation was not really sure what it should be doing," said its executive director Charles Eaton, who was recruited in 2010 to refocus the mission.

It wasn't that the free online training lacked for applicants. The numbers could be staggering. A mention in a military publication five months before Eaton arrived, for example, generated 10,000 inquiries and 1,000 applicants. But results typically fell short. Only 30% to 40% of the students who met the requirements for the foundation's training actually completed it. And of those, about a third got certifications, Eaton said.

"For people who have not been in IT, it is hard to learn IT just online. They need to be face-to- face, with other people who are learning it at the same time and with an instructor who can adjust to their needs," he said.

Those ideas formed the basis of IT-Ready: eight weeks of all-day classes on the desktop support skills covered in the CompTIA A+ curriculum; two opportunities (within two weeks) to pass the A+ certification exam, and a guaranteed paid apprenticeship at a local company. Graduates are also assigned two mentors, one on the job site and a CompTIA alum, and they have the option of taking online training for other IT certifications.

I want to give a company an employee who is better than they would have found themselves.

Charles Eaton,
executive director, Creating IT Futures Foundation

Screening for digital literacy, discipline and soft skills

For Eaton, it was important to keep the training short but intensive so as not to discourage people who couldn't afford a long commitment. But that called for careful screening of applicants. "Not everybody is ready for intensive training," Eaton said. In addition to passing a real-time computer literacy test (e.g., maximize window), candidates were screened for soft skills using a personality inventory developed by TalentLens, the workplace assessment division of Pearson Education. "We want to get a sense of how well applicants work with others, how they communicate -- all those soft skills that employers are looking for," Eaton said.

Applicants had to be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old and be able to pass reading and math tests at the 10th grade level. "Sadly, we had six or so people who didn't pass those -- good candidates who got all the way to the interview stage but had to be let go. We can't compromise the model until we understand what works and doesn't work," Eaton said.

The model borrows from a variety of training programs Eaton had researched during a year of planning IT-Ready. From Year Up, a Boston-based 12-month training program for low-income adults 18-24, Eaton learned successful applicants demonstrate discipline, so he incorporated steps in the application process to screen for that. "There had to be follow-through. It wasn't hard -- send me this, or fill this out,"but people dropped out along the way. The foundation also liked Year Up's commitment to finding its applicants internships, but worried that older adults might find it demeaning to be hired as an intern -- hence the IT-Ready Apprentice Program. Per Scholas, a technology training initiative based in the Bronx, is the closest in design to IT-ready, Eaton said, adding that he hopes to have a partnership with Per Scholas hammered out by fall.

Companies sign on apprentices as part of computer job training

The hardest aspect of IT-Ready launch has been finding companies to hire the apprentices in the Cincinnati and Minneapolis/St. Paul areas, the program's inaugural locations. Here's who's helping.

Cincinnati

MTC IT
Pomeroy
Tata Consultancy Services

Minneapolis/St. Paul

Covidien
GED Testing Service
HealthPartners
Medica
SecureConnect

Source: CompTia's IT Creating Futures Foundation

In May, IT-Ready kicked off in Cincinnati and Minneapolis/St. Paul with a total cohort of 25. One person dropped out immediately and one "failed himself out of the program" after breaking a core tenet by returning late from lunch. "We graduated 23 of the 25 people we started with (92% graduation rate) and 91% of the graduates passed the two CompTIA A+ exams. By the end of the month, we will have more than 90% of those who passed A+ in full-time jobs or apprenticeships," Eaton said. He attributes that to the cohesiveness of each group and personalized teaching to students' needs.

The hardest part was getting companies to sign on for the apprenticeships, Eaton said, but he expects that to get easier as the program grows. Twenty-three IT technicians ready for full-time work is a drop in the bucket of the foundation's target market -- the unemployed and underemployed adults who may not find their way to an IT career. But the program is built to scale, keeping overhead low with rented facilities and tapping a national base of CompTIA alum for assistance. The plan is to add three more cities in the coming months, but classes will remain small, limited to about 15. And if the apprenticeships go away, as word of mouth grows and companies hire IT-Ready graduates off the bat, Eaton's fine with that.

"I want to give a company an employee who is better than they would have found themselves," he said.

In the meantime, Madlung, who is working with the IT team migrating Covidien employees from Windows XP to Windows 7, sounds delighted to be working. "The group I work with are really a great bunch of people."

Read about more IT-Ready graduates at, "Forging new futures: technology training program boosts retiree, vet."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, News Director.

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