With A Future Full Of Jobs To Fill, Training Programs Take Aim At Skills Gap

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Students in instructor Kayvan Sabery's class at YearUp in Boston (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Students in instructor Kayvan Sabery's class at YearUp in Boston (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This story is part of a BostonomiX series called “The Future Of Work” that examines the jobs of the future and the skills needed for those jobs.

Octave Muhirwa used to sell accessories out of a pushcart downtown. Like any good salesman, his products swapped with the seasons and his resolve went unfettered by New England's volatile weather.

"I sold sunglasses in a pushcart from spring 'til around October, when the sun kind of fades away, and then I would work for this other person selling scarves during winter," he said. "So we'd just freeze in the cold, right in front of Macy's."

That was years ago, right after the then-19 year old had moved to Boston from Rwanda, having been granted asylum.

These days, things have changed drastically for Muhirwa. The 26-year-old is now part of Boston's booming tech sector, working as a support engineer at a mobile marketing startup.

"I wanted to work for a startup just because I really wanted to get into tech," Muhirwa said. "It's great. It's really exciting."

It all started when Muhirwa was told by a friend about a program that set his friend up with an internship at an investment management company.

"I went to visit him once there, and they were at this nice building downtown," Muhirwa recalled. "I was like, 'oh my god, this is great!' It just kind of like helped me picture where I could be ... so then I just went ahead and applied.”

The program is called Year Up. It’s a nonprofit whose mission is to train young adults who lack opportunities for professional careers. They tend to come from low-income and underserved communities.

It's free and students even get a stipend. They’re offered classes in sales, finance, project management, quality assurance or IT. Students also take classes in communications and workplace readiness, learning essential skills like how to write a resume or build a network. Classes go for six months, then students do an internship for an additional six months.

On a recent morning, students quickly file into a classroom at Year Up's offices in downtown Boston. Class starts promptly at 10:10 a.m. Being on time is important here. If you're late, you get docked points. And it was the first day of this class.

“Welcome to our CIS201, which is computer hardware," instructor Kayvan Sabery says at the front of the room. "At the end of the seven weeks, the hope is that you guys will be in a very good place with hardware. In other words, knowing every component of a computer and also that you would actually be able to build your own PC.”

Kayvan Sabery, an instructor of information technology, talks to his class at Year Up. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Kayvan Sabery, an instructor of information technology, talks to his class at Year Up. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Sabery has taught IT at Year Up for 14 years. On this day, he gives the students a few computer basics.

"So does anybody know, what is the smallest value for data?" Sabery asks.

"A byte," a couple student say.

That's wrong, Sabery says.

"Now a byte, when you put eight of those bits together it gives you a byte," Sabery explains and then makes a biting noise to emphasize his point.

"So, what is the smallest value for data?" Sabery asks.

"A bit,” the whole class responds.

Sabery works the room and injects humor throughout the lesson to keep the class engaged.

"Everytime I say Microsoft what do you say?" Kayvan asks.

"God bless Bill Gates!” the class shouts before laughter fills the room.

(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But Sabery is very serious about making sure these students learn the right skills. Many of the classes at Year Up aim to prepare students for jobs that are expected to see major growth in the future.

“Throughout these next few weeks they will be able to change [a] motherboard, change hard drives, troubleshoot issues with computers and upgrade them," Sabery says.

There are many companies eager for Year Up students, like Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest hospital network and biggest private employer.

Garrick Rodrigues, a senior IT manager at Partners, said it's a challenge to fill entry-level IT jobs.

"If we don't fill those positions, we're going to struggle to be effective," he said. "We're going to struggle to deliver the technology and the services that we need to deliver in this revolving world of digital and technology."

Partners has hired 30 Year Up grads in recent years. Rodrigues said his greatest need is for workers with both professional skills and technical expertise.

"We need them to be able to translate the use and support of that technology to how they speak with and interact with our users," he said.

Year Up attempts to fill that divide with its mix of classes. About 90 percent of the program's grads are in full-time jobs or enrolled in college.

"Often some of these entry-level positions require a two- or a four-year degree. What we've demonstrated is that for a number of these entry-level positions you don't need a two- or four-year degree."

Bob Dame, executive director of Year Up Boston

Many companies say there aren't enough qualified workers to take up available jobs — especially in the tech world. According to a recent poll, 75 percent of business leaders in Massachusetts say they struggle to find qualified candidates for open positions. Many business leaders say applicants lack a range of skills, the same poll found.

This skills gap will likely get worse in the future as technology continues to change the workplace. But programs like Year Up see the issue as an "opportunity" gap.

Year Up Executive Director Bob Dame said there's a lot of overlooked talent, and those people can be trained to fill jobs.

"Often some of these entry-level positions require a two- or a four-year degree. What we've demonstrated is that for a number of these entry-level positions you don't need a two- or four-year degree," Dame said. "You can come through a program like this or other programs, develop the skills specific to an industry and then continue to develop from there."

That outcome is also backed up by research. A Harvard Business School study released last week found workers with relevant professional experience were equally or more productive than college graduates.

Students at Year Up say the training program is rigorous.

Sage DelaCruz used to work at a car rental company. Now she’s learning IT at Year Up.

"I feel very secure," the 21-year-old Boston native says. "After I finish Year Up, I know I'll always have a job just because of how quickly the technology industry is growing. I know there'll always be a place for me to go."

In Massachusetts, there are 17 jobs for every computer science grad, according to a report by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. And many jobs in science, technology, engineering and math are projected to grow by double digits by 2024.

(Click here for a deeper look into jobs data and projections.)

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

So training is crucial. And it helps people like Muhirwa, the pushcart vendor turned engineer. He did an internship through Year Up in IT at an investment firm. Then he worked part-time at the company while he went to college and studied computer engineering.

“Actually, my Year Up graduation felt better compared to my actual college graduation," Muhirwa said. "Because Year Up becomes like family. You make really good connections, you make really good friends.”

Year Up started in Boston in 2000 when there were few organizations doing this type of training. Now there are other programs — like coding bootcamps, workshops and internships — all trying to fill the skills gap.

Year Up now trains 3,500 students across the country. And they hope to scale up because, as they see it, there are tens of thousands of “opportunity youth” out there.

This segment aired on November 3, 2017.


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Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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