Cracking the code: IT-Ready opens the tech industry door
Rebooting a career is not unlike dealing with a locked-up computer. Sometimes a skilled technician is needed to step in and help find a solution.
Creating IT Futures provides the “Help Desk” for career changers and entry-level workers looking to break into the burgeoning Information Technology (IT) sector. Through its IT-Ready program, participants learn foundational skills which enable them to hit the reset button on their future.
Greg Bartell, of Champlain, Minnesota, was faced with this problem after spending six years in retail and food service management following college. He wanted something different after hitting a roadblock in his career and working 70-plus hours a week.
IT-Ready would offer him that opportunity. Despite having a limited background in computers and IT, Bartell told WorkingNation that getting into IT-Ready would provide him the certainty that his previous career did not.
“It was the first time that I felt like I was going to be in a career that I could thrive in, in my entire life,” Bartell said.
Three years after completing IT-Ready, Bartell is the Network Operations Center Team Lead at Atomic Data in Minneapolis and is helping clients solve their IT problems. Without IT-Ready, Bartell may have never had access to an industry that has a critical need for skilled workers.
In the 20 years since the IT industry advocate CompTIA launched Creating IT Futures, the digital economy has fundamentally reshaped the nature of work bringing in new jobs as it transformed or eliminated existing jobs.
There were 2.8 million job openings in tech in 2017, according to CompTIA’s CyberStates report. Many of these jobs didn’t exist back in 1998, such as blockchain developer, cybersecurity specialist or machine learning developer. Careers in these occupations usually require a four-year degree or more, yet there are many well-paying jobs in entry-level roles that only need a certification.
With the rising threat of cyber attacks and competition between countries to develop advanced technology, the current pace of workforce development isn’t meeting the demand. Closing the IT skills gap is of significance not only because it can lead to better-paying work for millions of Americans, but it also is a matter of national security.
“To me, it seems like we’re going to walk off a cliff if we don’t find a way to fill these roles,” said CompTIA Senior Director of Training Program Operations Adam Turner.
Turner was one of the developers of the IT-Ready program, which places 25 students from different backgrounds and age groups into a rigorous classroom environment following a competitive application process.
The accelerated training program is free for all students which include tuition, books and related materials. Many students do not have formal IT training and are either unemployed or underemployed. They have the passion for improving their digital skill set. Over eight weeks, students study computer fundamentals: hardware, software, and troubleshooting as they prepare for the CompTIA A+ certification exam.
While acquiring the technical know-how to work a help desk and become a computer support technician, IT-Ready students also train for the working world through an embedded “soft” skills curriculum called PrepareU. They learn how to conduct themselves during job interviews, interacting with teammates and conflict resolution.
“Day One of Week One, we don’t talk about motherboards. We really start at square one of communication,” Turner said. “That gives the students the opportunity to connect with one another.”
Opening the lines of communication and teamwork helps foster a healthy support system in the classroom, according to current IT-Ready student Mark Hoelscher.
“Because of all of our different experiences, all the students help each other in different ways. Some of us learn at different rates, some of us are faster at picking up the big things,” Hoelscher said. “Ultimately, we’re all in it together. It’s a family. It’s a community. If one of us is struggling, we all step in to help.”
From the moment they start the class, IT-Ready students follow the high standards of the program. They must adhere to the full-time schedule and professionally present themselves as if they were working their first IT job. Bartell remembered how rigorous the program was and why that was necessary.
“It’s essentially a crash course in getting your A+ certification. Eight weeks is not a lot of time, and it’s a lot of information to try to cram in to be able to take that certification and pass,” Bartell said.
Sue Wallace, the Creating IT Futures executive director, said that the entire process ensures that graduates are work-ready. Since IT-Ready began in Minneapolis in 2012, Creating IT Futures’ employer network has come to rely on the graduates it produces.
“We’ve found that those employers we’ve been working with keep coming back to us. There are some that even look to us almost solely for their new IT talent,” Wallace said. “They like the fact that we’ve been working with individuals for eight weeks and we’ve given them an assessment process upfront. They know that when they’re getting somebody out of our program, they’ve already been fully vetted.”
So far, IT-Ready has generated more success stories as the program has expanded to Portland, Oregon and, most recently, Charlotte, North Carolina. Eighty-eight percent of enrolled students have completed the course and 86 percent of these graduates were hired to work in entry-level IT roles, according to Wallace.
Unlike most other entry-level work, IT-Ready leads to jobs that pay a living wage or better. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a computer user support technician can earn a median wage of $50,270. Network support specialists can make $62,340. Within a short timeframe, students can go from unemployed to certified IT workers without a financial investment in education.
After Bartell earned his A+ certification in 2015, he was set up with a talent scout who placed him in job interviews with Creating IT Futures’ local partners. His first interview did not go well as he felt that he wouldn’t be a great fit for that company. But his soft skills training kept him on the path and prepped him for a second interview with Popp Communications which hired him as a service desk technician.
“They were an outstanding company to work for, and I really enjoyed my time there, however brief. I learned a lot in those first couple of months with them and that would help me to land my position at Atomic Data,” Bartell said.
Bartell’s story, like other IT-Ready students who have made the transition out of their former careers, encompasses what the program is about: giving back to the local community and expanding people’s horizons. IT-Ready works with community outreach partners like Minneapolis-St. Paul TechHire to source candidates and uplift them out of a zero-sum economic cycle. It benefits not only the student but the local economy by creating a robust workforce pipeline.
“One of the most inspiring things about the job I have is watching individuals who come into our program who are struggling to make ends meet, or there are things going on in their lives that they feel are barriers,” said Wallace.
Graduates from IT-Ready don’t stay in entry-level work for long. Wallace noted that many of them are receiving promotions and moving up the career ladder. “We have people that are coming back to us years later,” Wallace said. “They’re making 70, 80 and 90 thousand dollars a year.”
It only took two years of working at the Atomic Data Network Operations Center for Bartell to become promoted to Team Lead. The leadership and customer service skills that he developed in his former career in management, honed through his experience with IT-Ready, became fully realized.
“People who have that customer service background and that aptitude for tinkering like Greg really have a good base to be able to take the technical training that we’re offering through this program and translate that into a successful IT career,” Wallace said.
To stay on the career pathway in IT and bridge off into other roles, it is vital that IT techs remain on top of the ever-changing trends and earn more stackable credentials. IT-Ready provides the foundational knowledge and instills within students the importance of lifelong learning.
Atomic Data’s Director of Network Operations Center Calvin Rice recognizes what his company’s partnership with IT-Ready has done to enhance the learning capabilities of his team.
“I call it a Picasso approach. You give the guys and gals inside that program a canvas and a paintbrush and some paint and let them figure it out and let them grow within IT. They give them the tools and the understanding of what they need to know, and then we do the rest here,” Rice said.
According to Bartell, Atomic Data has supported his growth with continuous on-the-job training as well as offering tuition reimbursement for passing other CompTIA certification exams. He said that he and his teammates recently earned Security+ certification, thus expanding their responsibilities and knowledge base.
“If you want to go above and beyond to get more certifications, that’s more on your own time. The great thing about this company is if you do go for that certification and pass, they’ll fully reimburse the cost of the exam,” Bartell said.
Keeping techs like Bartell on an upward career path is crucial for a company like Atomic Data. According to Human Resources Administrator Aly O’Keeffe, it is hard to attract skilled workers to move to Minnesota so they must source from the local community and upskill its workforce.
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Atomic Data’s experience with Creating IT Futures has been a positive one. The company has hired than a dozen graduates through their educational programs, and many are still with the company.
Last year, Atomic Data became a Mission Sponsor of Creating IT Futures. In addition to financial support, O’Keeffe and fellow Atomic Data employees offer their expertise to IT-Ready students with mock job interviews and other career-readiness exercises.
She said that she sees firsthand the impact the program is having on its students and Atomic Data’s workforce.
“Creating IT Futures, the benefit they provide is that they are essentially giving us very highly-trained and skilled technicians that are coming directly out of their program and eager to learn more and to work for an IT company. We’re finding people that are trained, excited and are ready to go,” O’Keeffe said.
The success of the IT-Ready program, with its blend of classroom instruction and professional development, lends itself to reinvention.
Though Creating IT Futures refreshes the curriculum with every update to the A+ certification, Wallace said that the model could offer more than basic training in computers and become a launching point for all types of IT careers.
“Instead of helping get somebody into a role that’s a help desk or entry-level technical support, maybe we’re going to train people towards software testing. Or adding in an entry-level project management certification with CompTIA Project+. Or maybe we’ll move along another role, a technical role to give somebody a different access point into the IT industry,” Wallace said.
As the IT world grows and expands into every aspect of our lives, Creating IT Futures and IT-Ready is growing along with it. Like its graduates, the organization is committed to discovering ideas and implementing new teaching techniques so that they can produce more workers like Bartell.
The challenge moving forward is scaling these programs, especially free ones, to bring more workers into the tech economy. By offering a learning environment which places all students at square one of technology, the IT-Ready program is like that friendly help desk attendant, ready to solve any career problems.
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CompTIA, the global advocate for the Information Technology industry, is taking on the skills gap in IT with Creating IT Futures. Through the IT-Ready program, Creating IT Futures is creating a workforce pipeline for career changers and entry-level workers to break into this industry.