Cincy's Got Tech Talent: Per Scholas adds accreditations

For more than 20 years, nonprofit Per Scholas has been providing free tech training to adults who need a fast, efficient path to gainful employment. The Cincinnati site, opened in 2013, has graduated (to date) 392 students into the IT industry, feeding into the job market in Cincinnati and beyond with newly trained professionals. The nonprofit boasts impressive results with the typical graduate increasing their income over 400% after graduation.

In response to the ever-growing information technology industry, Per Scholas has made an important addition to their popular CompTIA A+ certification program. This fall, the program will increase by five weeks (to 15 weeks total) and include not only the A+ certification in computer technical support, but also a Net + certification in computer networking. The first class of students begins in late September.

Teaching technical skills, thinking on your feet
Delrae McNeill is the manager of technical instruction at Per Scholas Cincinnati. In his two years of teaching at at the nonprofit, he has taught about 10 sessions of the CompTIA A+ class, and is looking forward to adding the networking training to the class this fall. He believes it’s a natural addition to the curriculum.

The CompTIA class was the first class introduced at Per Scholas Cincinnati. It’s an introductory course in IT Support, with content covering computer operating systems and hardware. The Net + curriculum provides an added layer of working knowledge rather than just theory. Working toward a Net + certification means learning the basics of computer networking, not only in theory, but also in practice.

"How can we add a security feature so not everyone can see everything on everyone’s computer?" 
Delrae McNeill

McNeill explains, “Networking looks at how we connect all of these computers together to share information, whether that’s wireless or in a home or business environment. We ask: ‘How do we make those two devices see each other and communicate and share information? And, how can we add a security feature so not everyone can see everything on everyone’s computer?’”

With this added Net + certification, the CompTIA class has gone from 10 to 15 weeks. Students are in class full time, five days a week. It’s a lot of work, especially for the students who do not have any prior technical experience or have not sat in a higher-level educational environment before. But the majority of the class is a hands-on lab environment, working on real equipment and hardware. The students get into it quickly.

“We show them everything from setting up a SOHO (small office; home office) to an enterprise network (a few hundred computers connected),” says McNeill.

The students work through configuration training and troubleshooting, asking what could be wrong when the devices aren’t communicating as they should. They run real-time scenarios. And they have a little bit of friendly competition to prepare them for the fast-pace world of IT support in a professional environment.

“You have to be able to jump right in and think on your feet,” McNeill says. “And we also have to prepare them for that angry phone call that’s bound to come.”

Connecting students to the tech world
The goal of Per Scholas’s program is not only to train students in employable skills, but also to connect them to gainful employment. With certification in these tech skills, graduates can quickly enter the IT industry in entry-level positions with large local employers like Spectrum, CDK Glogal, or Kroger.

Jason Skidmore is CEO of the IT services and accounting company Vernovis. He sits on the Board for Per Scholas Columbus and his company has been an employment partner at both the Columbus and the Cincinnati Per Scholas sites.

“I understand the shortage of great IT professionals out there..."
Jason Skidmore

Skidmore has sat in on classes and spoken with students about careers in the industry. As a member of the board, he has helped Per Scholas evolve their programs to meet the demands of the industry. In both Columbus and Cincinnati, Vernovis has hired Per Scholas grads for special projects and has helped feed them into entry-level positions with their clients. They’ve even set up a revenue sharing model to give back to the nonprofit and its students. Every time Vernovis places a student in a position, they give back a portion of the revenue to support Per Scholas programs.

With 20 years of experience in the tech industry, Skidmore is a big fan of Per Scholas’s education model and of its new CompTIA A+ / Net+ course. He has watched the evolution of the industry and says this program is exactly what these students need to get prepared for a career after graduation.

“I understand the shortage of great IT professionals out there,” he says. “Most tech support jobs today really require both [certifications]. With them, applicants are a little more marketable. It gives them a little more credibility.”

The Per Scholas program is unique, Skidmore says, in how the training is conducted. Rather than focus only on hard, technical skills, Per Scholas students take time developing professional skills that will help them along their career path as well. This is also a different kind of student, he says. The average Per Scholas classroom is a diverse group of adults from very different backgrounds, often from underserved communities. In Skidmore’s experience, “they are creative problem-solvers,” which is a strength in the industry.

“They have different life experiences,” Skidmore says. “Often times this means solving problems differently or more effectively than more seasoned IT professionals.”

A liaison between graduates and the industry
Dave Matre is the Director of Business Solutions at Per Scholas Cincinnati and his job is to connect new graduates with careers in the local industry, with companies like Vernovis or whomever else they’d like to work for.

With a long-term career in IT sales consulting and management, Matre knows how interconnected the IT industry is and how important it is to be connected to the gatekeepers there. Even his job at Per Scholas, where he’s been for almost five years now, came through his social network, with a friend referring him to the job when he was looking for a change.

Graduates have already been trained in professional skills and are ready to secure employment, but they may not be connected to a network of professionals already in the industry.

“It’s all who you know,” he says. So he serves as that missing piece, a liaison between them and potential employers. This sometimes means following up with graduates as they interview, notifying them of an exciting new opportunity, or placing a phone call to a potential employer on behalf of Per Scholas, building awareness of the program and the qualifications of its graduates.

His job, he says, is really just to “help them help themselves.”

Per Scholas does have some formal employment agreements with local companies. But the industry at large, Matre says, still has more open positions than people to fill them. During the Career Development portion of the CompTIA training program, he invites potential employers to conduct mock interviews with students for practice. When the students are preparing to graduate, he provides a list of local companies, such as help desks or call centers that he knows are hiring. And he invites employers to graduation, to get a glimpse of the Per Scholas model for success and to facilitate introductions with new graduates.

“All companies use information technology services or they contract a company to do it,” he explains. “We are a pipeline either directly to those companies or to the companies they will hire from.”

"If there is someone who you know and trust, their referral carries more weight than pulling a resume off of a website." 
Dave Matre

With the addition of Net+ certification to the CompTIA training course, Matre says the next round of graduates will have a higher-level skillset. The extra certification makes them attractive to a different set of employers than those in prior sessions. The skills are more complex and jobs start at a higher pay-grade or in a more concentrated field, such as Network Administration. And, as is the nature of the IT industry, with every new level of certification and real-world experience, IT professionals have a high growth rate in the career field.

Matre adds that, in the IT industry, employees work with a lot of sensitive information. Because of that, there are a lot of extra security measures, background checks, and vetting of new employees. Referrals from a trusted source mean a lot.

He explains. “If there is someone who you know and trust, their referral carries more weight than pulling a resume off of a website.”

Matre provides that extra vote of support for Per Scholas graduates and invites them into the interconnected web of IT industry professionals.

For his part, McNeill is preparing to welcome a new class of students to the first cycle of the A+/Net+ program in September. To those interested in enrolling in the class, he is quick to point out that no previous IT experience is necessary. All it takes is an interest in an IT career and the willingness to work hard.

“I teach this class as if we’re all starting from ground zero and we all come up together. It is designed for novices …” he says. “We’re all still learning together. This information can be overwhelming at times … I will constantly remind students: Don’t freak out. If they stay calm and do the work, we’ll get there. And we’ll get there together.”

Support for the Cincy’s Got Tech Talent series is provided in part by Per Scholas Cincinnati. New course study, CompTIA A+/Net+, launches September 24, 2018. To find out more, click here.

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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.