Attacking the computer-worker gap Towson University, ICTS train with Operation Bootstrap

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Since graduating from North County High School in 1994, Jaime Tond has worked at Home Depot and at a sub shop.

She's also had to make several trips to the unemployment line.

With no real marketable skills, Tond figured that $5.25-per-hour jobs like the one at the sub shop were about the best she was going to do. Then a counselor at the Business & Work Force Development Center suggested she enroll at a new computer-skills training center in Woodlawn, run by Towson University in partnership with a private company. The center would even pay the $1,550 fee. Hesitantly, she said yes.

The three-week class taught Tond how to take apart and repair desktop personal computers and led to a temp job fixing PCs that paid $12.50 an hour and let her do a bit of traveling.

More important, it caused Tond to upgrade her self-image. With her temp assignment completed, Tond is again looking for a job, but this time she's got great prospects. She even intends to return soon to the training center for the tough -- but penultimate -- course that teaches students how to manage and troubleshoot computer networks powered by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system.

"Monday night I sent out 20 resumes," Tond, 21, said a week ago. "Before this, I would have had to go to another sub shop and beg for a job."

For people such as Tond, Towson University's Woodlawn computer training center is having an impact. Called Operation Bootstrap, it occupies 15,000 square feet in a converted strip center on Security Boulevard and is a joint venture between Towson and ICTS, a privately held Alexandria, Va., company headed by a tech-industry veteran and financed by venture capitalists. The building's disconsolate facade -- slated for upgrading -- gives no hint of what's inside: 14 freshly painted and carpeted classrooms and two labs stocked with the latest in PC and networking equipment.

Operation Bootstrap is one example of how colleges, companies and economic development agencies are attacking the technology-worker gap -- a gap that seems to widen relentlessly as computer technology marches relentlessly forward.

There simply aren't enough skilled workers to fill all technical jobs that digital technology is creating.

"A growing number of industries throughout the country are reporting serious difficulties in hiring workers with the appropriate computer and information technology skills," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said when he introduced an unrelated technology-skills partnership bill early this month. "If we are unable to adequately train our work force with the information and computer skills it needs, the want ads will go on wanting."

That scarcity of high-tech workers is seen by many economists as an impediment to growth -- both for U.S. companies and for the broader economy. For some, it's emerging as a crisis. Right now, in Maryland alone, an estimated 10,000 high-tech jobs are going unfilled. That's only going to get worse, most predict. With an ever-increasing reliance on computers, networks and telecommunications devices, the U.S. economy creates the need for another 200,000 technology workers each year, according to one study.

In California's Silicon Valley, where hundreds of technology firms have congregated, the shortage is so severe help-wanted ads overshadow pitches for products or sporting events on drive-time radio programs.

But in this era of fiscal austerity, universities can't, on their own, finance educational programs to fill those jobs; Operation Bootstrap itself had capital startup costs of at least $600,000 -- an outlay that jumps to $1 million if labor and marketing costs are factored in. It took a private partner -- with a profit motive -- to make the project happen.

"We're working with much tighter profit margins" than other companies financing such schools, said Lou Vescio, the ICTS president who spent 15 years with Texas Instruments Inc. "We're not looking to make 50 or 60 percent."

ICTS and Towson have a revenue-sharing agreement, Vescio said, though he did not provide details. The company has established similar arrangements with Virginia's Old Dominion University, opening a center in Alexandria, and with Mercer University in Atlanta. The Old Dominion center opened in January 1997 and graduated 2,400 students in its first 12 months, he said. The Mercer training center is just getting started.

"We share revenues, are partners" with the schools, he said. "We provide the financing, the funding, and [the schools] provide the curriculum overview and quality control. They approve the instructors."

ICTS was formed not quite two years ago by a group of business-people and financiers who have known one another for years, Vescio said.

In one sense, Towson University sees Operation Bootstrap as a way for the institution to do its part in helping to engage the technology-skills crisis and ease the shortage of workers. But on a more personal level, it's a way of helping people find jobs that pay well and make them feel as if they're making a productive contribution to the region's economy -- even people like Tond who don't have a college degree, one Towson official says.

"This was a no-brainer for us," said Douglas P. Kendzierski, director of Information Technology Management for Towson's College of Graduate and Extended Education, which administers the program. "We are directly responding to this region's employment needs."

Officials say Woodlawn was chosen because it is close to the Beltway and it's an area they believe contains a ready audience for such training. Towson says one advantage its program has over others is that it bundles together all the things that a person wanting to make a drastic career change would need to succeed: The cost of the courses includes books and other learning materials, the right to use the labs over and over to practice uncertain skills, the prepaid "vouchers" for the certification exams and job-placement assistance afterward.

For students who need extra time to pick up the concepts taught here, enrollment includes the right to audit any part of their course as many times as they want for up to 12 months. The students are not given the exam vouchers until they show they can pass the lab simulations with a score of 100 percent.

These extras may be one reason that 70 percent to 85 percent of the students pass the certification exam the first time, said Vescio, the ICTS president. That compares with an average of 15 percent to 50 percent for other courses he has looked at.

As part of its marketing strategy, Towson priced its courses below the prevailing market rate -- some training centers charge double or triple the prices Operation Bootstrap is offering, said Susan C. McFaul, assistant director of the program. (Vescio of ICTS allows that some competing programs are priced lower.)

There is no government subsidy for the program, though some students such as Tond benefit from job-training funds.

Since it opened late last year, Bootstrap has helped more than 500 students prepare themselves for better opportunities, McFaul said. Officials hope to teach 2,000 per year when the program is running at top speed.

Towson is trolling area high schools, showing students who don't plan to attend college that there's still a high-paying career path to follow. And it also holds career fairs.

A PC technician with a high school diploma or graduate equivalent who has passed the computer-repair course that Tond completed could start out at $18,000 to $30,000 and in a few years could be earning $40,000 to $50,000. A student who completes one of the Novell network training courses and passes the certification exams can expect to start out at $25,000 to $40,000. And one who invests the four months to six months needed to complete Bootstrap's $3,900 course to become a certified systems engineer for Microsoft's Windows NT network operating system can earn $34,000 to more than $80,000, according to a survey commissioned by MCP Magazine.

Some Microsoft-certified systems engineers (known as MCSEs in the industry) are also college graduates, but many aren't, said Vescio. MCSEs are in tremendous demand because they are able to design, install, administer and maintain the NT networks. Windows NT is rapidly displacing Novell NetWare as the standard software for a computer network, though many companies still have Novell systems in place.

It is not clear what percentage of graduates the Towson program is placing; Bootstrap's McFaul says they are starting a study to see how graduates are faring in the job market.

Vescio says Bootstrap will flourish by offering a select menu of courses and not expanding into too many areas.

"We're going to refrain from that," he said. "If we offer too many things, we won't be able to do them as well."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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