Management: Training the Next Generation of IT Professionals

By Debra D'Agostino  |  Posted 06-21-2006

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and a group of 14 students have gathered in the back room of a computer lab at Columbia University in New York City. It's a sociology class, and the focus of today's session is the science of learning. The atmosphere is casual and conversational, though slightly hesitant as class begins, so the professor prompts the students with a few pointed questions. Soon enough, students are chatting openly, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of cramming for exams, and sharing tricks for carving out time from their busy schedules to devote to studying.

At first glance, it seems like any ordinary college-level class. But this class isn't ordinary. It is the first group of students organized by Workforce Outsource Services (WOS), a non-profit firm that is working to train and employ inner-city and disadvantaged students in IT positions at large and small businesses throughout the country.

Founded in 2005, WOS is the brainchild of Dr. Arthur Langer, the instruction and curricular development chairman of Columbia University's Continuing Education Technology Programs, and a faculty member in the university's Graduate School of Education. Langer conceived the program after completing a four-year study of New York City's Housing and Urban Development Adult Education Program, which provides grants for low-level skills education in technology. Though the program originally aimed to give participants skills to help them find tech jobs, Langer concluded that technical training alone wouldn't be enough to prepare disadvantaged youth to compete in IT careers. "A lot of these young adults need a combination of training and study programs," says Langer. "We need to help them gain real business skills and training from a quality institution so they can effectively build their careers."

As part of that mission, participants in the WOS program (who are chosen through an application process and accepted on full scholarship) complete a 16-month certification program that includes courses in the softer skills of writing, time management and business communications as well as technical instruction. The program is funded by participating corporations such as Prudential Financial and AIG, which provide on-the-job training and mentoring for WOS participants. Upon completing the course, WOS helps graduates find full-time employment.

For Barbara Koster, global CIO at Prudential, WOS offers a critical service. "I am concerned with the low percentage of our children going into technology," she says. "We have a graying workforce in IT, and I certainly believe that Web design, COBOL programming, help desk support are all important functions that people from all walks of life can learn. It's only a matter of finding a way to provide that training and mentoring. In that sense, WOS not only supports business; it supports the local community."

And it gives students the opportunity to really get their foot in the door, says Gillian Griffiths, a WOS participant and one of Prudential's interns. "Because of WOS," she says, "I am starting my career and getting a good education at an Ivy League school at the same time." Griffiths is working on Web design for Prudential, but says her ultimate goal is to become an IT manager. "I'd like to do project management," she says, "and my experience at WOS is definitely preparing me for that."

And that's really what Workforce Outsource Services is all about. "We feel we have a population of people who can effectively compete against the work that's going offshore," Langer says. "It's about taking a population that has been left behind and leveling the playing field."