Creating STEM job opportunities for lower-income adults

Internships, apprenticeships, and daily high teas

Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have outpaced overall job growth, according to the Pew Research Center — a 79 percent increase since 1990. Computer jobs have skyrocketed 338 percent. But when it comes to being a part of that amazing job growth, blacks and Hispanics are lagging behind.

“Blacks make up 11 percent of the U.S. workforce overall, but represent nine percent of STEM workers, while Hispanics comprise 16 percent of the U.S. workforce but only seven percent of all STEM workers. And among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, blacks are just seven percent and Hispanics are six percent of the STEM workforce,” according to Pew’s report.

An untapped talent pool

For cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee, unemployment trends back up the disparity.

Young people of color in Chicago are six times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. In Milwaukee’s red-lined neighborhoods — areas considered unworthy of economic investment by the federal government in the 1930s — 36 percent of residents have incomes that are below the poverty line, compared to the citywide poverty rate of 27 percent.

Elizabeth Ferruelo, chief revenue officer for nonprofit i.c. stars, isn’t surprised by these statistics.

“There are a lot of community-need statistics around cities like Chicago and Milwaukee with the loss of industrialization and manufacturing. There have been certain neighborhoods hit a lot harder and have seen chronic joblessness as a result of the decline of manufacturing,” Ferruelo says.

These are the type of cities where you will find i.c. stars, which is working to close the gap between rising STEM openings and an untapped talent pool.

Staying relevant to community and workplace

i.c. stars uses project-based, immersive technology-based learning opportunities to arm lower-income young adults with the skills they need to compete for today’s jobs. While the curriculum focuses on hard skills, it takes a broader perspective on community impact, aiming to give young adults in the program a “bigger than you” sense of accountability.

The organization began while Co-founder and President Sandee Kastrul worked in education. She consistently heard presumptions that kids from under-resourced areas couldn’t master higher-level math. Her observations found the opposite — not only did students from diverse neighborhoods perform well in higher level-math, but they also had better problem-solving skills and system-level thinking, assets that are valuable in the business world.

At the time i.c. stars was born 20 years ago, the dot-com era was booming. Because of the way in which the program is structured — project-based — i.c. stars is able to stay relevant and adapt the curriculum to what the industry is facing in its current state.

“We have pivoted a lot. But because we work so tightly with employers, it has kept our training program relevant for over 20 years and that has kept us successful in terms of having higher placement rate and 300 percent earnings increases,” Ferruelo says.

Referrals lead to training

Most applicants are referred to the program from alumni and then undergo an assessment process as part of the screening. Housing can be an issue for applicants; 15 to 20 percent are housing unstable. Transportation can be a challenge, and stipends are offered to remove that barrier. Close to 15 percent are justice-involved.

Mental health counselors and case managers are part of i.c. stars’ staff and available during and after completion of the program.

On-the-job training

Once accepted, participants are referred to as “interns.” While they are learning, the training is more akin to actual work, for which they are being paid a stipend for 16 weeks. Twenty interns are brought on at a time to form a cohort. Corporate sponsors partner with i.c. stars and bring projects for the interns to work on to get valuable real-world experience.

The program has a strict absence and tardiness policy. Those who don’t complete the program likely have violated that policy, Ferruelo says. As such, 80 percent of interns complete the program.

The curriculum begins with a “team week” to develop soft skills such as empathy-building, fundamentals of teamwork, developing a management style, identifying a personal learning style, strengths, and biases.

Learning hard skills

Work is done in sprints lasting three-to-four weeks for wire framing, program and tech trainer briefings, prototype builds, and connecting user interface and user experience (UI/UX) to the back-end of the product. Interns are also subjected to intensive, timed public assessments. At the end of the 16 weeks, the cohort is broken up into teams of four to compete to win the project from the partner-client through presentations.

“It’s very powerful,” Ferruelo says. “We have testimonials from folks who grow on a technical and soft skill level. People who were shy and afraid to speak in public end up presenting their deck to 50 executives. There are a lot of things like that, where you can get your confidence, and your agency and belief in yourself.”

From intern to apprentice

Nina Altuna, i.c.stars alum, presenting to the cohort after her 16-week training (Photo: i.c.stars)

Housing expert Nina Antuna worked for a Chicago Housing Authority subcontractor for a decade until the firm’s contract wasn’t renewed. She learned of the program from an alum and says she was intrigued that someone from her community (Back of the Yards — considered a working-class neighborhood) could have an opportunity like the one i.c. stars offers.

“Technology seemed like it wasn’t an industry I could’ve walked into because I don’t carry a degree, I don’t have previous experience. I just didn’t see how it would be an industry I could tap into. i.c. stars introduced me to it. And during the time I was there, it introduced me to so many more concepts that I can learn and ways to learn, and how to have a step-up in trying to join the industry,” Antuna says.

At the end of the 16 weeks, she was offered a 12-month apprenticeship at Accenture as a business analyst. She’s hoping it will turn into a full-time position. That wouldn’t be unusual; i.c. stars has an 85 percent placement rate and an 81 percent industry retention rate.

Taking tea with potential employers

In addition to developing the tech and teamwork skills, a distinctive component of i.c. stars is the daily High Tea. The cohort enjoys an hour with a high-tech senior executive in an intimate setting — yes, with tea and cookies — to hear the executive’s journey to success, challenges they’ve faced, advice they have towards setting goals, and an opportunity to ask questions. It’s not just a typical Q&A. Ferruelo says there is a ritual around the tea designed to embed soft skills-building into that hour.

“When an intern asks a question to a guest, it’s a ‘give to get.’ They share something about themselves as a segue into the question, so it doesn’t feel like the guest is getting grilled. Such as, ‘In my experience, this is what I had to overcome, this has been my fight. What is your fight?’” Ferruelo explains.

Exposing cohort members to high-level executives is certainly the top layer of this event. Ferruelo says what is just as powerful is the perception change for the chief technology officer or chief information officer who is the guest. It’s common, she says, for the guest to walk away asking, “How can I hire these guys? They ask better questions than my management team!”

Give and take equals expanded job opportunities

Ferruelo calls it a profound shift and the bringing together of people whose paths may not have otherwise crossed; a social fabric building that is not a part of i.c. stars’ metrics, but an equally important part of their work.

“It’s really powerful,” Antuna adds. “It’s something sacred at i.c. stars. We get to listen to the guest, they give us advice, it’s also a great networking opportunity. Sometimes our guests answer powerful questions you may not be able to ask in other environments. They open up to us and give us powerful insight into their journey.”

A guest currently working for the city of Chicago made the biggest impression on Antuna. She recalls that the executive shared how she worked in an industry and career path that she realized wasn’t for her and made a drastic change into the role she currently has. Antuna saw the similarities with her personal story.

“The transition from housing to technology wasn’t seamless. There was some struggle. But she overcame those struggles, and she is using her story, her success, to open up opportunities for others,” Antuna says. “I want to be able to create opportunities for others as well.”

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