Two years ago, Marilyn Wilhelm of Annapolis faced a difficult decision. Her husband had lost his job, and the family of six couldn't make it on the single income of a school day-care worker. Her sister suggested she look into a computer networking career, so she enrolled in the Cisco Networking Academy at Anne Arundel Community College.
After two semesters of working part time and living off savings, Wilhelm became a Cisco-certified network associate. The entry-level certification ensures technicians know how to connect and manage the wiring and switches to link computers and provide Internet access. The college held a career fair last year with companies that had partnerships with California-based Cisco Systems Inc.
Her training and enthusiasm landed her a summer internship and later a job at Chesapeake Netcraftsmen, a networking company in Arnold. This year, she began teaching the basic networking courses she took at the college and started studying for higher-level certification through her company.
Now, at 43, Wilhelm is the main breadwinner of the family, while her husband takes care of their children.
"I think it's really important to let people know what opportunities are out there," she said. "I think if I can do it, anybody can do it."
Wilhelm joined alumni, state officials and Cisco representatives Tuesday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cisco Networking Academy program in Maryland, a public-private partnership between Cisco and the Maryland State Department of Education. A reception was held at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and state Secretary of Higher Education James E. Lyons Sr. were among the guests.
Since the program's inception, more than 6,700 students have earned certification through the state's 56 networking academies in high schools and community colleges. In Maryland, Cisco has donated more than $3.7 million in discounts and in-kind contributions such as equipment and teacher training. As of November 2007, there were 2,300 academies nationwide.
Grasmick said the partnership with Cisco is a perfect example of how businesses can work with schools to make sure students are prepared for the work force.
"This is such an asset for our students," she said.
Cisco Systems is one of more than 350 employers that work with the state to provide everything from internships to career curricula, said Katharine Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career technology education and adult learning.
Thousands of networking and computer support jobs will become available as the national military base realignment and closure program, known as BRAC, progresses and moves more jobs to the state. Maryland will need an additional 9,100 network systems administrators, analysts and managers by 2014, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Cisco-certified networking professionals can make between $50,000 and $70,000, according to state officials. And there aren't enough qualified candidates to fill available jobs, Oliver said.
"Right now, the demand far exceeds the supply," she said.
Of the 56 academies in Maryland, 44 are in high schools. Suzie Jones said the academy changed everything for her. "I was bored at high school," said Jones, who attended Maurice J. McDonough High School in Charles County.
Faced with a choice of training in the culinary arts or technology, Jones decided to try a class in computer networking because she thought it would lead to a higher-paying job. She earned a certificate as a network associate and landed an entry-level job paying $25,000 immediately after graduation.
"It gave me a career," she said. "I didn't need a college education to start."
Jones, 24, is a network engineer at Stanley Associates in Arlington, Va., and a staff sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. Now that she can afford college, she is majoring in business administration through the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and plans to get a certificate in IT project management.
"Without networking, I wouldn't be where I am," Jones said.
Wilhelm graduated with a bachelor's degree in general studies in 1992 from the University of Maryland, College Park. Because her husband was in the military, she moved around a lot and was never able to earn a teacher's certificate, she said. Wilhelm was filling in and working various jobs at her son's elementary school when the family hit tough financial times. She was earning about $25,000 a year as a child care worker at the school.
Wilhelm's sister was earning a degree in computer science and persuaded Wilhelm to look into a technical career. Networking was a whole new language of acronyms and jargon, she said. "It was hard work, but it was worth it," Wilhelm said. "I was kind of surprised how fun it was."
Wilhelm took four eight-week classes, and she found herself among new college grads and others who, like her, were taking a stab at a new career. The college career fair featured a dizzying array of computer companies, but Wilhelm knew she wanted to work at Netcraftsmen as soon as she saw the company's presentation.
"I liked every person that I met," she said. "They have the most amazing work ethic."
Wilhelm says her new salary is enough to support her family.
"It was more than I thought would be possible," she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The number of Maryland students enrolled in Cisco Networking Academies, as of November 2007:
Education level ......... Students ............ Academies
Secondary schools ........ 2,340 ........................ 44
Community colleges ......... 834 ........................ 11
Universities ............................ 32 .......................... 1
Total ................................... 3,206 ........................ 56
Source: Cisco Systems Inc. and Maryland State Department of Education
by the numbers