With a year's worth of college credits and no degrees or certificates to show for it, Miguel Ponce, 28, was in a rut: living with his mom and siblings in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx and working hourly jobs that he didn't enjoy. "I bounced from retail job to retail job. I was making barely anything," he says. "It always felt like it was just a gateway to something better...I was working retail until I became a computer technician or a doctor -- always something else." While employed with a delivery company, Ponce used Craigslist to find a job that would allow him to work with computers -- his favorite way to spend time. One poster told him he was under-qualified for a tech job, but linked him to a website for Per Scholas, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides free, intensive I.T. job training to low-income adults in five other U.S. cities.
Along with 800 other aspiring employees who sign up every year for Per Scholas's classes (in IT support, network engineering and cyber security, among other subject matters), Ponce enrolled in an eight-week class on software testing. The rigorous sessions, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, taught him how software works and why it might fail, then asked him to practice spotting errors in real time. After receiving additional training in "soft skills," like communication, collaboration and problem solving in the workplace, Ponce had the skills he needed to start a career in a booming part of the tech industry. His chances were good: 80 percent of Per Scholas graduates find a job in less than a year, and most see their wages rise five-fold to more than $36,000 a year -- offering a pathway to the middle class, complete with a living wage, fulfilling tasks and the prospect of career advancement.
APPLY: Per Scholas is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program today.
Perhaps surprisingly, many tech jobs require only a high school diploma. Per Scholas, which is supported by numerous partners and organizations, including NBCUniversal Foundation, the Center for Economic Opportunity and JPMorgan Chase, among others, aims to fill those positions. Employers in the tech sector give Per Scholas direct input on the curriculum, sharpening the organization's training beyond a generic computer science class. By doing this, participants receive skills for jobs that are available now, instead of abstract roles that might never exist. The results of the collaboration? A strong track record of placements at big firms like Bloomberg, ConEdison and TimeWarner Cable. Wayne Kunow, global head of information risk management at Barclays's investment banking arm, says he's "truly been impressed with the caliber and quality of talent coming from Per Scholas," rare praise for a program located in the South Bronx.
The organization's impact, however, exceeds successful placement statistics. Tech companies often hire college graduates who are overqualified for entry-level jobs because other streams of talent haven't been identified. By proving that its workers (of which 90 percent are minorities) from poor communities can competently fill these jobs, Per Scholas could change the face of the sector and open job pipelines to forgotten communities. No longer do tech titans need to think they must sacrifice quality to add diversity. Hiring a Per Scholas graduate -- an asset with appropriate talent that can quickly fill a role -- is a win-win.
These trailblazers who will transform the tech industry come from neighborhoods consistently left behind by economic development. Per Scholas is headquartered in the South Bronx, an area notorious for being the poorest congressional district in the country (38 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line). Plinio Ayala, Per Scholas's president and CEO grew up in the neighborhood and says that while the physical decay may be better than it was during 1980s, the people still feel left behind. "The borough has always lacked opportunities, and the people have lacked opportunities." Better jobs, he believes, are the only way to foment a change.
"The success of programs such as Per Scholas is vital to the future of our economy," says Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. "We want to be the next tech hub of the world and in order to fulfill that goal, we will need qualified talent to step into those job opportunities. Per Scholas helps teach and build up our future tech geniuses that will help take our great borough to the next level."
A life-changing career can't come soon enough. Poverty dogs many: A male student reported not having eaten for three days; a female student couldn't do her homework in the homeless shelter where she lives. To solve these challenges, Per Scholas regularly signs people up for government assistance and offers advice from an in-house financial planner whose services are particularly valuable since three out of every five participants carry an average of $20,000 in outstanding debt (from prior schooling, cars, mortgages, credit cards, child support arrears or tax liens). The advisor advocates for those who are in default, helps students qualify for tax breaks and teaches them how to start saving. Thanks to regular group workshops and one-on-one counseling sessions, students collectively socked away more than $100,000 during the first three months of this year.
This financial planning is vital, especially since those enrolled are trying to leave behind retail and fast-food gigs -- low-wage work with limited possibilities -- to climb the career ladder. "If a crisis comes up, you can fix it," explains Ayala. "But if you're not making enough money at all, those problems are almost insurmountable. It creates this very yucky situation for people that don't know how to get out."
Ponce, once stuck in an endless cycle of dead-end jobs, now works at a top-tier Silicon Valley firm. "Back then, [Per Scholas] was the only thing that I had going for me," he says by phone from San Francisco. Today, he's using his computer skills to provide recommendations on how to improve software functionality, a job that gives him immense satisfaction.
The joy of the position, he says, is that testing is like a puzzle: There's so many ways humans might use a computer tool that he needs to consider to make sure it works. In a way, his job mirrors the role Per Scholas plays for tech companies. Without the organization, no one would give thought to how poor communities might participate in the online revolution, but thanks to its rigorous testing and training, a whole new functionality is deployed.
Per Scholas is a recipient of last year's 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!