Students at the Per Scholas training center in Silver Spring. Photos courtesy of Per Scholas.
An ongoing debate in Baltimore city questions the value of equipping high school students with A+ and other IT certifications over teaching them how to code. The first is a basic qualification that can be helpful in being hired in traditional IT jobs, while the second is a flexible skill set sought after by a range of businesses today.
But the very model national nonprofit Per Scholas employs in its four training centers — including its newest in Silver Spring, Md. — unquestionably defends the usefulness of IT certifications.
“Everyone needs, at a minimum, to have A+,” said Bridgette Gray. “If you know how to troubleshoot, then that’s saying you have a basic minimal understanding of a computer.”
Gray is the managing director for the new Per Scholas training center that opened March 24 in Silver Spring. Over the course of eight weeks, Per Scholas offers free A+ certification training for seven hours a day Monday through Friday for unemployed or underemployed adults. Generally students have been out of work for six months or are looking to transition careers, and many students make under $24,000 a year, or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The foundation of the program, as Gray said, is on IT certifications: “They are still needed, more so than coding.”
As Technical.ly Baltimore has reported, local nonprofit Digit All Systems focuses much of its computer training on IT certifications. Digit All founder Lance Lucas has said such training is the most effective way to get the city’s “untapped population” of unemployed residents in East and West Baltimore steady paying work in the IT industry.
Following their eight weeks of A+ training with Per Scholas, students then have 90 additional days to take Network+ and Security+ classes online, with vouchers provided for each test. Throughout the course of the program, students also receive career development training — interviewing skills, resume-writing help and workplace behavior coaching — and job placement assistance.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington is a partner with Per Scholas, assisting with referrals to IT jobs for Per Scholas graduates. Eighteen students are in this first class of Per Scholas trainees at the new location.
Headquartered in the South Bronx in New York, Per Scholas has trained more than 4,500 people age 18 and above since 1998. A majority of graduates are from minority demographics, and one-third have been women. According to Gray, 80 percent of Per Scholas graduates are gainfully employed, with 75 percent of that 80 percent retaining employment beyond the first few months.
Per Scholas Fast Facts
- Graduates filled 328 jobs in 2013.
- The average starting salary is $28,500.
- It costs $7,000 to train one student at the Silver Spring location.
“[The jobs are] all in IT,” she said. “That’s one of the requirements: it’s a requirement that we only help them find employment in IT. That’s an agreement that we ask them to make too.”
Silver Spring became an attractive location to establish a new Per Scholas training center because of the region’s high concentration of IT jobs. (In the Baltimore metropolitan area, roughly 55,000 people are employed in computing jobs.)
“It’s like the Silicon Valley of the east coast,” Gray said. “There are tons of IT positions here, but there’s not enough trained workforce.”
While Per Scholas can’t train everyone, it hopes to make a small dent in unemployment. The goal for the first year, said Gray, is to provide A+ certification training — and jobs — to 80 students.