I.T. trainees learn while they earn

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque native Matthew McCarthy, 29, kicked around in a number of odd jobs since graduating high school, with stints in retail outlets and a call center.

But since September, he’s been working full time as a computer and networking specialist at LDD Consulting, a small information technology firm that builds and manages IT systems for schools, organizations and businesses in Albuquerque.

Network engineer Andrew Troy, left, supervises apprentice Steven Florez at Albuquerque IT firm Abba Technologies’ Network Operations Center. Florez is an Abba-managed services analyst who is gaining skills through the CNM apprenticeship program to become a network engineer. (Courtesy of Kip Malone/CNM)

LDD hired him as an apprentice through Central New Mexico Community College’s Information Technology Apprenticeship Program, a novel initiative that the college launched in 2016 with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The program places IT trainees directly in paying jobs with participating employers, who provide on-the-job training with experienced mentors. CNM provides free classroom instruction for the apprentices and pays for all their learning materials and certification exams to qualify them as trained professionals in their chosen IT fields.

McCarthy always wanted to break into IT, but until applying for CNM’s program last August, he had only dabbled in some computer classes. In fact, he was unemployed before joining LDD, the first company to offer him a professional-level job.

LDD Consulting apprentice Matthew McCarthy, left, and company owner and mentor David Luft install computers at the Public Academy for Performing Arts charter school in Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s hard to find a real job like this for someone like me without an education or a degree,” McCarthy said. “This program opened the door. It’s giving me on-the-job training and experience with official certifications under my belt when I graduate, and that means a lot in the IT world – enough to start a good career.”

For LDD and other employers, the program is helping to find talented workers for skilled positions. That’s the No. 1 challenge for IT firms today, said LDD owner David Luft.

“It’s incredibly difficult in New Mexico, because we’re all competing for the same base of talent,” Luft said. “This program provides us with people who can start with entry-level stuff while they get subsidized education through CNM. With the right person like Matthew, we get a great employee who is excited about IT and who will give 110 percent while we train him in the way we like to do things.”

Unusual approach

CNM apprenticeship program director Sue Buffington.

Apprenticeship programs are nothing new for the construction and manufacturing industries, but it’s unique in the IT field, and quite novel for a community college to manage it rather than an industry trade association or a union, said CNM program Director Sue Buffington. CNM is the first college in New Mexico to do it.

“There’s only a handful of community colleges in the nation running or sponsoring apprenticeship programs,” Buffington said. “It’s practically unheard of.”

It’s part of a new, national emphasis on building the mid-level skilled workforce needed to fill critical jobs in IT and other emerging digital industries, such as advanced manufacturing, which face chronic labor shortages, Buffington said.

Nearly 7 million people remained unemployed across the country in 2017, despite Labor Department reports of some 6 million unfulfilled positions. And much of that gap is in the mid-skill arena, where many people lack the knowledge or training to qualify, or where college graduates often still need real-world experience before getting hired.

That’s particularly true in IT and other technology fields, where many jobs require more than a high-school education but not a four-year degree.

“We chose to focus on IT because of demand,” Buffington said. “We heard from many local employers that they can’t find enough IT workers and they have to recruit from out of state and out of country.”

Labor Dept. grant

CNM network support technician apprentice John Byrom works at the CNM IT Department data center. (Courtesy of Kip Malone/CNM)

CNM is one of 46 institutions nationwide to receive a grant under the Labor Department’s American Apprenticeship Grants Initiative, launched in 2016. CNM expects to train 300 apprentices by 2020.

So far, it’s placed 28 people in apprenticeships with about one dozen participating employers. But many others will be hired in coming months since CNM has now qualified 250 more prospective trainees.

All participants must first pass the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solution’s WorkKeys exam, which assesses things like problem-solving skills, basic math and reading and comprehension. CNM vets the applicants through interviews for acceptance to the program and potential placement with employers.

The college worked with Workforce Solutions, private employers and others to develop the training curriculum. Trainees can choose from seven different IT fields ranging from computer programming to network management. Two areas, cybersecurity and medical coding, were added in January to the program’s initial five IT fields to provide more opportunities, Buffington said.

Once accepted by employers, apprentices earn lower starting wages than regular, fully trained new hires. But the positions include all benefits, and the salary grows throughout the yearlong apprenticeship as trainees achieve milestones. And most employers expect to retain apprentices at normal starting wages once they complete all program requirements and achieve their certifications.

Assessing success

It’s still too early to assess program success, but CNM’s effort inspired Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to co-sponsor a CHANCE in Tech Act bill last year that would direct the Labor Department to organize more apprenticeship programs like CNM’s, potentially providing ongoing funding.

Employers say it’s helping with recruitment. Health IT services company UnityBPO, for example, has 15 apprentices now and expects to hire five more, said Vice President for Global Service Delivery Abel Murrietta.

“Programs like this are essential for growing companies like ours,” Murrietta said. “It creates a pipeline of people with the right character and talent.”

At Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the program could help resolve a shortage of medical coders, said Director of Healthcare Information Management Tamara Hidalgo.

“Certified coder positions are hard to fill across the U.S.,” Hidalgo said. “It’s a win-win for us, and for talented individuals interested in this field who we can train to our standards.”

Apprentices say it’s setting them up for good-paying careers.

“It’s real hands-on learning that will make me hireable in many positions,” said Sarafina Reza, a 23-year-old apprentice with CNM’s IT Department.

UnityBPO apprentice Kelly Campbell, 33, called the program a “golden opportunity.”

“For some companies, the experience and certifications I’m getting mean more than a college degree,” Campbell said.

Red River Networks apprentice Marcus Packer, 28, said the program should be expanded to include many more technology fields.

“There’s a lot of poverty in New Mexico and many kids here leave high school and don’t know what to do,” Packer said. “If this grows beyond IT, it can provide opportunities to build up the skilled workforce New Mexico needs.”

Trainees wages start low, but rapidly climb

Mid-level IT jobs often start at around $50,000 a year, according to Sue Buffington, director of Central New Mexico Community College’s Information Technology Apprenticeship Program.

But pay can vary widely between public and private sector positions and depends on an employee’s area of IT specialization, experience level and job responsibilities.

CNM apprentices start at much lower wages than regular, fully-trained new hires. But the salary climbs during the apprenticeship as trainees achieve milestones, and most likely will be hired later as regular employees with regular starting wages.

At Presbyterian Healthcare Services, newly-hired medical coders start at $17 per hour, or about $35,000 a year. An apprentice, however, begins training at $10.10 an hour.

CNM IT department apprentice Sarafina Reza started at $10 per hour in January 2017, but now makes $12.48. If she is hired later by CNM, her salary could begin at $17 an hour.

UnityBPO apprentice Kelly Campbell started at $13.75 an hour, but her salary would likely jump to about $30,000 annually or more if she is hired later by the firm.

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