IT Novices Get Grip on Work Via Fed-Funded Training

IT Novices Get Grip on Work Via Fed-Funded Training

Bill Carlson

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

In a few weeks, Diana Ellis, Najwa Ali and 15 other students at Comsoft Learning Center in Bethesda, Md., will begin three-month, paid internships — followed by real jobs — at Subsystems Technologies Inc., an information technology consulting company in Arlington, Va.

The 17 students are some of the beneficiaries of the Washington Area Technology Initiative, a newly funded, $20.2 million Labor Department program that will train about 3,000 displaced workers in the Washington metropolitan area for technology jobs. Most participants are unemployed because of job layoffs.

"I think it's a very good service — to get people who maybe are on the lower side of the pay scale, who maybe don't have as many opportunities," said Ali, a Germantown, Md., resident who said she was "luckily" laid off from her applications support position.

Program director Bill Carlson is busy launching the training initiative beyond its 18-month pilot phase, which is now winding down. It is a cooperative effort involving the Washington, Maryland and Virginia governments, employers and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Carlson does not have business cards or a Web site yet, but he is hiring more staff and planning a media campaign toattract both employers and potential students.

He acknowledges that training 3,000 workers over about five years will put just a small dent in the area's huge pile of unfilled tech jobs. "We're not going to take care of all the job vacancies; we're just trying to be a part of the solution," Carlson said.

Still, he added: "I see no reason why this [program] shouldn't take off like wildfire. Where the rubber hits the road is where employers are ready to take a chance."

The level of employer involvement in Metro Tech makes it different from many other government-funded projects, according to its backers.

"The employer said what its needs are, and then people are trained. Usually people are trained, and then we find the employer. This makes more sense," said Ginanne Italiano, director of work force programs for the Board of Trade.

Employers commit to hiring the students before training begins. They also decide the students' course of study and who provides their training.

"It's a little bit out of the box," Italiano said.

If the program takes off, Metro Tech may become a model for similar programs in other states, said Shirley Smith, administrator of the Labor Department's Office of Adult Services. The department also has provided several other, much smaller, technology training grants to other organizations around the country.

"In partnering with employers, we are training people to meet their specified skill sets. What we learn through Metro Tech would be a lesson that we would hope to be able to transport," Smith said.

Employers such as J.D. Murphy, president of Computech, a Bethesda, Md., software developer, see their participation as more than a recruiting tool. Computech hired two pilot-program trainees into a field where new workers have difficulty finding jobs without experience, yet need experience to find jobs.

Even though the workers stayed only a year, Murphy said he will sign on to take Metro Tech students again.

"I think we were giving something back to the community," said Murphy, a member of Metro Tech's management team and chairman of the High Technology Council of Maryland.

So far, about 30 employers have signed on, and 93 pilot-program trainees have gotten jobs. Another 213, including Ellis and Ali, are in training.

Sammy Malhotra, chief executive officer of Subsystems Technologies, has been pleased with the seven employees he has netted from Metro Tech.

"It's a win-win, because before the dislocated worker program, we were advertising heavily in the newspapers around town, and when we got the resumes, [the applicants] were not qualified," Malhotra said. "This way, we can get people trained in the curriculum [that] we have some say in, and we can get them into our culture very quickly, because we provide mentors for them."

The new hires generally are midlife career changers, Malhotra said. They have included a nurse, a pharmacist and a bank vice president.

"They have the management skills, and we're giving them the tech skills," he said. "Once in a while you'll get someone who doesn't want to work, but by and large it's been a very positive experience."

One of Malhotra's interns, Alberto Forero, went from Subsystems Technologies to Northrop Grumman Corp., where he is a systems engineer assigned to the White House and the executive office buildings.

"I love it," said Forero, who lives in Germantown, Md. Forero found out about the Metro Tech pilot program after he was laid off from his job as a television and VCR technician. He had always liked working with computers, and saw Metro Tech as an opportunity for a career change.

"Even if I had taken a class on my own, I don't think I would have had an opportunity to work in this environment," Forero said.

"The internship was key," he said. "The experience in the field is really important when you're getting trained. I have friends who have taken [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer course work]. They have paid a lot of money, and they haven't found jobs yet. They don't have the job experience."

Forero's success is good news for career-changer Ellis, a Silver Spring, Md., resident who found herself jobless after Qwest Communications moved her commissions analyst position to Denver.

"I guess I could have found another job doing what I was doing, but I thought the IT field is the way to go," Ellis said.

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