By Randall Wilson, Associate Research Director, JFF and TechHire TA Coach
Success in today’s labor market often requires study and a credential beyond high school. Work experience and credentials in technology skills can fulfill this demand and lead quickly to good-paying jobs. A combination of industry demand, a tightening labor market, and rapid changes in technology make skilled candidates highly attractive. The H-1B TechHire Partnership grants, a program of the US Department of Labor, responds to this opportunity by supporting accelerated training in high-demand technology skills and credentials. In 39 sites nationwide, participants aged 17-29, along with other targeted groups, are learning a variety of digital skills such as programming websites, providing IT “help desk” services, and offering cybersecurity solutions. They attend intensive training courses (“bootcamps”), meet potential employers, and attend internships to hone their skills.
But building a path to good technology jobs require more than strong technical training. It demands a range of supports and reinforcement – from application for training to job placement and beyond, to engage participants and keep them on a steady path to success. This is as true for young adults aged 25-29, who may have some work experience or schooling beyond high school, as for younger candidates, whose challenges may differ. TechHire program managers who focus on serving this age group echoed this view in a candid conversation, held in May 2018, about challenges and strategies to address them. They were joined by subject matter expert Dr. Lucretia Murphy, of JFF. This blog offers lessons and examples from these practitioners, as well as from other recent initiatives that successfully blend technical training and support strategies.
Challenge: Helping Participants Navigate Training, with Competing Priorities
If the saying is true that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” then it is essential for those in intensive training to see what lies ahead – in their lives, in work, and in their courses – as clearly as possible. TechHire participants in their late twenties are forming families, caring for parents or older relatives, and otherwise navigating complicated lives. Successful coaches in TechHire and similar programs have learned the importance of tools to support planning and organizing both for study and for life in general. One powerful approach is to lay out a timeline of course assignments and milestones, and work with participants to overlay the course timeline with anticipated life milestones during the same period. The coach and the participant can then predict times that may bring challenges for school, life, or both. This also allows program instructors or advisors to be transparent about likely “loss points” where people are most likely to face their greatest challenges and be at risk of dropping out.
Challenge: Supporting Credential and Program Completion after Participants Receive a Job Offer
Another challenge to engaging and retaining participants is the temptation of a job offer during the course of study, as noted by TechHire grantees Everett Community College & North Central Texas Community College. From one viewpoint, this can be counted as a success – though completing the course of study and attaining a credential may offer greater long-term rewards. Among candidates who accept job offers before completing studies or attaining a credential, some exit and don’t return for their credential; others return but take substantially longer to complete. In this situation, there are several strategies that can offer long-term benefits for both employers and participants. One is to convene employers – in a breakfast meeting or similar forum – and stress the value of candidates being fully trained and credentialed. Another is to encourage employers to facilitate worker education, through flexible scheduling; expanded tuition reimbursement or remission of tuition up front; and providing “free’ days (one per month, etc.) for employees getting close to completion to study for credential exams.
Challenge Engaging and Retaining Workers
Participants in the 25-29 age group may have limited or inconsistent work experience. Some may also have academic or confidence barriers. Engaging and retaining these participants, according to TechHire grantees, requires hands-on attention. This means both careful and systematic assessment when candidates apply to the program, and recurrent follow-up and check-ins over throughout. An effective assessment helps applicants envision a career pathway, using data about their work and personal history to outline a trajectory – both what led them to training, and possible paths that lie ahead.
For WorkSystems, a TechHire grantee in the Pacific Northwest, their career coach’s trusting relationship with participants is pivotal to engagement. In the coach’s view, this relationship needs to be consistent throughout the process so that participants can see that the coach is rooting for their success. WorkSystem’s coach stresses the value of paying attention to personal details--such as an upcoming birthday--as an aid to building an engaged relationship.
A crucial lesson for keeping participants engaged is the power of the cohort. The relationships among peers can be a source of support as well as personal accountability, while helping participants manage the tactical and academic challenges arising in an intensive training program. This could include letting peers know if one has to miss a class, is running late, or needs course materials or study assistance. The bonds formed among fellow participants can be a source of social capital extending beyond the program, for both personal support and professional networking. JFF’s Lucretia Murphy offers an example from “Accelerate Texas” (ATX), a program geared to integrating technical training with education in basic skills. At the start of Galveston Community College’s ATX initiative,
At the beginning of the program, the instructor gives people an opportunity to break into small groups or pairs to work together in study groups, peer support, etc. Individuals share contact information (e.g. phone, address) and then they commit to check on each other if they miss class, if they are struggling with assignments etc. Each individual also agrees to make sure their partner, team has updated information.
A final example of engagement shared by TechHire practitioners is the value of mentors in guiding participants, both during the training period and beyond. WorkSystems is currently recruiting mentors from the tech industry, with the hopes that the mentor can be a confidential resource for the mentee on the industry and to support their professional growth. The career coach will help participants prepare for the mentoring session and ground them in the career plan. The mentor can also introduce the mentee to professional associations that can jumpstart the process of career development.
Promoting Persistence Through Comprehensive Student Supports. 2014. By JFF. Link: https://www.jff.org/resources/promoting-persistence-through-comprehensive-supports/
- This brief offers examples of cost-effective strategies used by community colleges to support retention and persistence.
A Resource Guide for College and Career Navigators or Those Interested in Starting a Navigator Program. 2015/ Prepared by the Aspen Institute’s Workforce Strategies Initiative for Participants in the C2C Consortium. Link:
- http://www.aspenwsi.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/CareerNavigators.pdfThis resource guide contains links to a variety of materials that define the roles and responsibilities of career navigators and other support professionals, and provide models for supporting credential attainment and career success.