Back in March of this year, President Obama announced a new initiative, called Tech Hire. It’s a new campaign designed to get Americans more rapidly trained for high paying tech jobs.
The tech sector continually adds new jobs to the economy, and doesn’t have enough applicants to fill the vacancies.
The Obama Administration highlighted 20 communities already taking the lead - training students without a college degree for well paid tech careers. Among them was Tech Impact, a Delaware and Pennsylvania based organization which offers this training at no cost to students. Delaware Public Media’s Anne Hoffman has more what they’re doing.
Matavia Porter used to make music videos for local Delaware artists. She says the pay was sporadic and unstable. So she decided to trade the freelance life for a career in technology. When I caught up with her a few weeks ago, she was breaking down a complex concept to her fellow classmates in their intensive, 16 week certificate program. The concept at hand was how smartphones know where their users are. The answer has to do with something called an accelerometer.
"Any questions?" asked Porter.
"How does the accelerometer pick up the movements? How does it know like which way you’re going?" asks another student.
"Um, it does something with the earth’s gravitational pull. So, it’s some next level physics stuff going on," Porter replied.
That answer Porter gave is a great example of how she operates. She’s one of those people who takes in information quickly and can put it into her own words.
"I can catch on to things like that. I’m very analytical. This kind of thing keeps me going cause I like having to research," said Porter.
She says the program, part of the local organization Tech Impact, also provides a lot of support. The curriculum is online and her teacher has had friends donate professional clothes for student interviews. After the program concludes, successful students will get placed in an internship with one of several organizations, like Capital One or Barclay’s.
It’s really amazing because when you look at the job description for a job like that, they want people with Bachelor’s degrees, and we’re just coming out of this program with certificates. But those companies, they want us. They’re seeking after us," said Porter.
Programs like Tech Impact aim to prepare nontraditional candidates for careers in tech by giving students the specific skills big companies look for. And that’s important, because the landscape of who works in tech isn’t very diverse, captured succinctly by the HBO show Silicon Valley.
"It’s weird, they always travel in groups of five. These programmers. There’s always a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group."
Not only is Porter an African-American woman, a demographic poorly represented in tech fields -- at Google, for instance, it’s just one percent of the overall workforce -- she barely graduated from high school. She didn’t go to college and definitely didn’t host LAN parties with her fellow techie friends in the suburbs.
"Certainly there’s this perception of what you need to have when you’re coming into a technology career," said Anthony Pisapia, Associate Executive Director of Tech Impact.
"When we look at it, we see technologists who are very successful, who have high school diplomas, who never completed college, who never completed a degree," said Pisapia. "My own experience is my father went that route - high school graduate who became very successful in IT. So what we see is absolutely a myth and perception is not reality. And part of our challenge is waking folks up to the fact that there is this opportunity."
Pisapia says there are certain factors that can be insurmountable obstacles for some students. Things like strong literacy skills that enable them to write a cover letter or send a well-worded email. The other piece is soft skills like knowing how to get along with others and how to ace an interview. Tech Hire devotes a lot of time to helping students in these areas as well.
And since tech is the one sector of the US economy that is consistently growing, Pisapia says investing resources in training non traditional students is deeply worthwhile. In Porter’s case, she’ll complete a quality assurance internship at Capital One which will entail entry-level, help desk type work. But she’ll have opportunities to move up -- and she’s interested in taking a coding bootcamp in the fall offered by Tech Impact. For now, instead of making minimum wage or getting paid inconsistently for freelance work, if all goes well, Porter will clear around $50,000 a year.
Being able to provide not just a job, but also a career, that doesn’t necessarily require going into tremendous amounts of debt, is a good thing," said Sandie Behrens, who sits on the Board of Directors for Tech Impact.
Back in 1990, Behrens went through the same kind of program Porter is in now. It was called MOST or Minority Skills Opportunity Training in New Jersey. She was one of 25 people selected from a huge pool of applicants. Like Porter, Behrens didn’t have a college degree. She was also young and African American, and on top of all that, a new mom.
Behrens says she didn’t do well in high school because the curriculum was too rigid for the way that she learns best.
I have to do things very singularly. But the upshot of that is that once I learn something it usually doesn’t fall from my head," said Behrens.
But in the MOST program Behrens excelled. And it turns out that her style of learning is actually a huge asset when it comes to her tech work.
I can understand that this thing over here is inherently connected to this thing over here," Behrens said.
Behrens says that allows her to see things from a bird’s eye view, which makes her an adept Software Engineering Manager.
Now Behrens is successful in tech, and serves as a mentor for students like Porter. She says the best thing she can provide is one-on-one support.
Porter is starting her internship in two weeks, and she says whatever challenges she encounters in this new environment, she’ll be able to handle.
You know I don’t let my present circumstances choose my future. You know, if I want to get a job in these corporate companies, I look at what I need to do, what are they looking for, and I become that person," said Porter. "So, you gotta be adaptable."