Training Disadvantaged Kids for Hotshot IT Jobs

A New York not-for-profit helps high school grads and veterans find work in the lucrative information-technology sector by teaching them both technical and communication skills.

This is the fourth piece in a weeklong series that examines programs around the country that try to tackle the unemployment crisis and keep Americans connected to the workforce.

Imagine a technical job-training program where, after working a full day in the office of your would-be employer, you're required to attend night classes on social skills; skim The New York Times; and read books on office politics such as The No Asshole Rule. That frenetic pace lasts for nine months.

But, at the end of it, you will have a well-paying job in information technology. Guaranteed. That's because your future employer has already signed a contract with the training service to put you through this rigorous program. That company has made a down payment on you. Workforce Opportunity Services, a nonprofit based in New York City, will make good on the firm's investment.

WOS has upended the traditional model of a job-placement nonprofit. The group first recruits the employers who create the job openings. Then it finds disadvantaged young adults and military veterans to fill those jobs. (A more typical job training service model happens the other way around: The clients are the job seekers, and professional job counselors help match those people with employers.)

At WOS, the employer is the client; The group has landed some big names such as Prudential Financial, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and Hewlett Packard, to name a few.

As it turns out, both the clients and the nonprofit trainers believe that understanding current events and the quirkiness of office environments is just as important as understanding software code. Reading assignments and weekly journal writing are parts of a 360-degree training program intended to transform disadvantaged young people — those who might have a hard time navigating corporate culture — into productive, even hotshot, employees.

That's important because youth unemployment remains high in this still-recovering economy. Unemployment rates for people ages 16 to 24 hover around 16 percent, twice as high as the overall unemployment rate. It's worse for minorities. WOS focuses on this hard-to-employ population — high school graduates, disadvantaged students at technical or community colleges, and veterans. Many of them do not have much, or any, professional work experience. This makes them not-ideal candidates in a buyer's market, where employers can pick and choose among overqualified people.

Workforce Opportunity Services founder Art Langer, a Columbia University professor, saw raw talent in these tough-to-employ populations based on his own academic research, in which he followed the lives of 47 low-income adults in the Harlem area of New York City.

Langer found that that this group of people had a good capacity to understand "workplace literacy" — i.e., basic job requirements, technology, and business culture — but they needed help broadening their perspectives to take in multiple points of view and develop professional independence. "Historically, this group winds up in underemployed situations," said Brian Watson, WOS's director of business outreach. "We tell [employers], 'This is a great talent pool. We can help you tap into it.' "

Watson spends a lot of time courting IT executives who are in a position to create jobs. A former tech journalist, he goes to business conferences and talks to chief information officers about their staffing. WOS tries to differentiate itself from for-profit staffing companies by digging in deeper to understand what the firms actually need and incorporating that into the curriculum. Generally, WOS charges up to $50 per hour to train IT developers and $40 per hour for project managers, on top of the upfront investment to fund the training program tuition and consulting work.

Prudential has been using WOS services since 2005, helping the company achieve two of its goals — good works and solid employment planning. "It's also pathway of corporate futures for individuals who would not normally have those opportunities. That's the social-responsibility element," said Dele Oladapo, vice president and chief information officer for the human resources department at Prudential Financial, a WOS client. "The business opportunity for us was addressing IT pipelining issues that we had."

Prudential's relationship with WOS began when Langer was first honing his idea of tapping inner-city youth for a growing shortage of IT workers. It took a year for Prudential executives and WOS officials to hit on a strategy for recruiting New York City high school graduates. Prudential has now seen 300 trainees go through the program and has about 60 on staff. The average salary for a WOS graduate is around $43,000, but some graduates have been hired for salaries as high as $60,000.

Once a contract with a company is in place, WOS begins selecting people for training. Hundreds of candidates apply for just a few slots, which means a lot of people get turned away. WOS accepts one-tenth or less of the applicants for positions within certain program. In Atlanta, a program for 14 workers attracted 300 applications.

The trainee selection process is as intense as the actual training. Applicants have multiple phone interviews and are invited to classroom exercises in communication and critical thinking. "I thought it was intimidating" said David Vergara, who went through the program in 2007. He is now a systems and development analyst for Prudential's Global Business and Technology Solutions division. Since he finished the WOS program, he has completed his technical degree and is seeking a bachelor's degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"They didn't look at your past, your experience, how well you did back in high school.... They started from scratch and wanted to see that you were ambitious," he said.

Trainees take classes in the relevant computer technology, math basics, and language skills. But they also must take a course for nine months on interpersonal communications. The students work on language, writing, grammar, and public speaking. They write weekly assignments that answer questions like "How have you handled conflict?" or "Describe your level of self-esteem."

Students say that the WOS classes on "soft skills" are far more challenging than the courses teaching specific computer or math skills. "I was very quiet at first, but that class that we had, they kind of forced us to grow our communication skills. I think that was a great help to me," said Kavan Patel, who works as a systems analyst in the same Prudential division as Vergara.

Heightened self-awareness and self-management are goals of this class, and it is one of the factors that sets WOS apart. "We have found over the years that people don't necessarily lose employment because of technology. They lose it because they can't manage themselves or their interactions with other people," said Addie Rimmer, the group's director of student learning.

Students who enroll in the program often ask WOS recruiters, "What's the catch?" The catch, says Watson, is that you're going to have to work very, very hard. The advantage, however, is that you get a career in the fast-growing field at the end of it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the corporate clients of Workforce Opportunity Services. The correct name of the client is Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.