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Skills-training programs offer different opportunities for success

While it’s true that earning a college degree may dramatically boost lifetime earnings, it doesn’t mean that those who don’t earn one can’t find well-paying jobs.

Delaware has several job skills training programs, both for those young adults who struggled in or didn’t complete high school, and those who did but aren’t sure of their next steps.

Photo courtesy of TechImpact

Many of the opportunities are in Delaware’s rapidly growing information technology (IT) field, especially in connection with the Wilmington area’s financial services sector. Supporting the large regional and national banks headquartered in the city are two nonprofit IT job training programs, TechImpact’s ITWorks and Zip Code Wilmington.

TechImpact’s free 16-week program teaches students about computer hardware, troubleshooting, IT networking, security and more to prepare for the CompTIA A+ and Cisco IT Essentials certification exams, which make them eligible for jobs such as help desk technicians, end-user support techs, IT specialists and field technicians. After completion, students gain hands-on experience in an internship at a local corporation or nonprofit. 

The program, offered twice a year to upward of 20 students, is open to high school graduates without a bachelor’s degree who are between 18 and 26 years old.

It’s a labor of love for TechImpact, which was founded about 16 years ago to provide IT support to nonprofits around the country, says Patrick Callihan, the organization’s executive director. About a decade ago, it launched the ITWorks job training program to mentor a new generation of tech workers who needed a helping hand.

Photos courtesy of The Challenge Program

Callihan estimates that most who apply don’t have much more than a conventional knowledge of computers and technology.

“I’d say they mostly have some grit, some desire and an interest. We can help shape and mold that into a hard skillset,” he says.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Callihan says, the ITWorks program was placing upward of 90% of its students in IT jobs making at least $35,000 a year.

Most of the students are also coming from low- or moderate-income households, meaning that the training they receive through the program can open new doors. That’s aided by ITWorks’ mentors, who are often chief information directors or directors of IT at larger companies and are paired up with a new student each class.

“The entire 16 weeks, they’re really building their network,” Callihan says, noting students create LinkedIn profiles that help them expand their connections. “It really changes the game for them.”

TechImpact isn’t alone in the IT space, however, as six-year-old Zip Code Wilmington also offers an in-depth, 12-week training on Java software coding. The organization also launched a data engineering and analytics program this year — which has now pivoted to online instruction following the COVID-19 pandemic — to meet a growing need.

Zip Code Executive Director Desa Burton said earlier this year that data science and analytics job openings are projected to grow by nearly 15%, with 364,000 job listings expected in 2020. Many of those jobs remain unfilled longer than other tech positions, signaling that there is a need for qualified data engineering candidates.

“Machine learning, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics feed on data. Not just any data, but data which has been harvested, cleaned, stored, analyzed and leveraged. The chief architects of these systems are data scientists — highly skilled mathematicians and programmers. Data scientists are not able to do this work alone. Data scientists need data engineers and data analysts to help accomplish this work. Data engineers and data analysts help data scientists perform at peak efficiency. Without them, a critical piece of the data team is missing,” Burton said.

That need could lead to more opportunity for residents around the region.

As of April 2019, more than 90% of students completed Zip Code’s training over a dozen cohort classes, resulting in an 87% placement rate within one year of graduation and earnings of more than $70,000 on average. In just the past few months, recent graduates have been hired at JPMorgan Chase and the investment adviser giant Vanguard.

The program doesn’t have educational requirements, but does require applicants to pass a basic skills assessment and go through a two-part interview process. Unlike ITWorks, the Zip Code program does have a $6,000 tuition fee, but it can be reimbursed through a 26-week employment agreement with one of Zip Code’s corporate partners. Needs-based scholarships are also available to cover the initial cost for low-income applicants.

Skills Training Beyond Tech

For those looking for a career path outside IT, two Wilmington programs can provide that: The Challenge Program and Year Up.

Andrew McKnight, executive director of the nonprofit Challenge Program, is in search of lives to change. His 25-year-old organization targets young adults ages 18 to 24 who have a “barrier to entry,” including a prior criminal record, poverty, homelessness or lack of necessary skills.

Photos courtesy of The Challenge Program

It is a paid trainee program, meaning applicants can earn a modest stipend while learning job readiness skills, connecting with any needed case-management help, and gaining on-site carpentry and millwork training. The Challenge Program primarily rehabilitates low-income housing for local government and nonprofit agencies, but also periodically works on select creative projects from partners.

The program has a rolling enrollment, although it typically accepts around 25 students a year, McKnight says.

“We stick with our clients until they are job-ready, and that differs from one kid to another,” he explains. “We’re trying to get them to show up on time, get their ID in order, be able to pass drug tests and have transportation. We help them obtain flagger and forklift certifications and some OSHA safety certifications, but really what we’re teaching them is reliability.”

While The Challenge Program receives a number of references for potential clients and others from word of mouth, McKnight says that demand constantly outstrips enrollment. For those who are able to enroll, it can mean a life-changing opportunity. McKnight says roughly 60% to 70% of participants leave the public assistance system completely with a job.

“We find the real trick is not just getting them turned around, but it’s that we stick with them so that they have a place to go when they run into the hurdles that are inevitably going to come up,” he says, noting that before the pandemic, former students returned almost daily to chat.

Short-Term Financial Sacrifice, Long-Term Results

Another nonprofit that offers opportunity is Year Up, which runs a yearlong training program for high school graduates ages 18 to 24 who live in a low- to moderate-income home. It focuses on desired corporate roles, including software development and investment operations, and includes a six-month internship with a corporate partner. In Wilmington, that includes JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Sallie Mae and BNY Mellon.

The program requires a yearlong financial sacrifice — although it does offer a small stipend — but can open new doors upon completion. In the latest 28-student cohort that graduated in January, about 90% were employed after graduation, while the other 10% went on to seek additional education at a college. The newly employed workers earned upward of $72,000.

Ronald Shackelford Jr. and his fiancée Taylor Brown were among those Wilmington graduates. They went from losing their lease and moving back in with his parents to now earning more than $150,000 per year together working at JPMorgan Chase.

“[Job training programs like Year Up] matter because it’s not the same world of 10 years or 20 years ago. That group went to college, had low student loans and paid them back,” he said after graduation. “Now, educational level doesn’t necessarily match salary. Year Up is like a cheat code. I shouldn’t have been able to get into JPMorgan. But people saw potential and how hard I worked and saw value. That’s life-changing.”

By Jacob Owens

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