Our society has a problem. College has gotten so prohibitively expensive that young people are losing access to the education they need to build the skills to launch a career. At the same time companies are struggling to find talent in an almost zero-unemployment economy. But Cognizant may have found a solution. The global technology services company has partnered with Per Scholas, a nonprofit IT training program in New York City, to provide adults from underserved communities with the training they need to fill jobs in the technology industry.
“We see this as an opportunity to find new talent to fuel our rapid growth,” said Eric Westphal, Cognizant’s senior director of global corporate affairs. Since 2010, Cognizant has grown from roughly 100,000 global employees to more than 270,000 and $14.8 billion in revenues, making it one of the largest companies in the world. That has created an ongoing challenge to find talent who can meet clients’ needs.
In 2016, Westphal began researching potential partners who might help them build a training program to fill those gaps, and he discovered Per Scholas, which was founded in the 1990s to train high-potential individuals from overlooked communities in basic tech skills. The organization originally trained candidates to refurbish computers for people who couldn’t afford to buy new ones, explained Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas. But as hardware costs fell, they shifted to a workforce development model. “Now we design programs through the lens of the employer,” he said.
It’s a unique program in which the Per Scholas team partners with organizations like Cognizant to create specific curriculum to meet their hiring needs. “This employer-driven model is fast and effective,” Ayala said. Per Scholas finds promising candidates and provides them with the exact training and guidance the company is looking for.
The program addresses Cognizant’s hiring needs while giving individuals with excellent core skills but limited educational resources a chance to build a career, Ayala said. It also addresses the need for greater diversity in the tech world. Most Per Scholas students are people of color, a third of them are women, and a third are disconnected young adults — all groups that are largely underrepresented in IT employment today, he said. The students range from people with associate degrees who haven’t been able to find a good job, to stay-at-home mothers who have been out of the workforce for a period of time, to high school graduates who can’t afford further education. “We find people who are not typically considered by corporate recruiters and develop them into an alternative pipeline of talent,” Ayala said.
In 2016 Per Scholas began working with Cognizant to create tuition-free customized hands-on training programs in cybersecurity, IT support, systems administration and web development. Once students graduate they are guaranteed an interview with Cognizant or another local business. Cognizant has committed to hiring hundreds of graduates from the training programs to support clients across New York, and Per Scholas is working with other employers in the region to help program graduates find jobs.
State-of-the-Art Training Center
Per Scholas and Cognizant ran an initial pilot in July 2017, which helped them identify areas that needed adjustments, said Westphal. They expanded the initial training time and honed the assessment process to ensure selected candidates could handle the rigorous curriculum. Candidates are still only required to have a high school diploma or GED, he said. “The assessment is more about their aptitude and attitude than their education.” The students will be expected to work full time in a highly technical training environment, so they have to have a subset of skills and a willingness to commit, Ayala added. “Our expectations are very high.”
In September 2017, Per Scholas and Cognizant officially opened the 15,000-square-foot Bronx Training Center for Platform by Per Scholas, a dedicated training center for students participating in the program. The space features modern technology, lots of shared work spaces, a cafe, conference rooms and many classrooms. “We wanted it to feel like a Cognizant office space,” Westphal said. Cognizant covered the cost of the $6 million center, which was offset by $2 million in performance-based tax credits through the Excelsior Jobs Program.
Once candidates are accepted into the program, the training lasts about three months and requires them to be on-site eight hours a day, five days a week. They also have additional homework and projects to complete outside of class.
Along with hands-on technical training, which incorporates case studies and examples from the Cognizant workplace, students complete business and soft skills courses and have access to career coaches and counselors to help them address any personal or professional roadblocks, Westphal said.
“The soft skills training was really helpful,” said Mauricio Velasquez, who graduated from the program in early 2018 and now works for Cognizant. He said the time spent prepping for interviews, giving mock presentations and learning how to write business emails gave him the confidence to work on client projects.
Velasquez had been working as a counselor at the YMCA and going to college part-time but was struggling to cover tuition when he heard about the Per Scholas program. He was accepted into the programming track after a two-step interview process with a panel of experts from Cognizant and Per Scholas, and he quit his job to focus full time on the training while staying with friends. “It was a tough three months,” he said.
Velasquez found the full-time approach to training helpful because it forced him to stay totally focused on his education rather than going back and forth from work to school. “We covered a lot of material, but it was very appropriate,” he said.
Juhyun So had a similar experience. She was accepted to the data engineering track in fall of 2018, where she’s learning Java, SQL, Java Database Connectivity and other big data concepts. She noted that while many of these skills can be learned online through tutorials, having access to specific datasets, project assignments and working with a cohort of students gave her greater insights and incentive to keep going. “The curriculum helped me gain a sense of how these skills will be used in a real company,” she said.
Ready to Work
Velasquez was hired by Cognizant within a week of graduating, and while he may not have a conventional four-year computer science degree, he found that his new programming skills put him on par with or ahead of others in his cadre of new hires. He was immediately assigned to a client project, where he was able to apply his SQL training from day one. “There is a lot of merit to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but there is also a lot of value in hiring someone who’s gone through specialized training for that role,” he said. “Employers need to see that value.”
Westphal agreed. The program had trained more than 600 candidates by the end of 2018, 80 percent of whom completed the program — which is one of the measures of its success. More important, Cognizant managers working with Per Scholas graduates consistently report that they bring a strong foundation of skills that can be readily applied on the job. “It’s given them a foundation for lifelong learning, and it has given us a new source of talent,” he said. Indeed, the program has been such a success that Cognizant opened another center in Texas in 2018 and expects to double the number of students who go through both programs by 2020. “It has become an important part of our talent strategy,” Westphal said.
Westphal encourages other large companies to consider replicating the model if they have a need. “As an organization, we didn’t have the relationships in the community to find this talent on our own,” he said. But by partnering with Per Scholas, and investing the time and resources to create a specialized training program and center, they have been able to address their local talent gaps. “It is an opportunity to disrupt the way you find and develop talent,” he said. And any up-front investments that it requires are more than returned in having access to quality people.
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