Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Delcie Bean is clear about the biggest challenge facing his fast-growing Hadley company, Paragus Strategic IT.
“We can’t staff. Not quickly enough. Not at the right time,” said Bean, CEO of Paragus. “There are not enough employees and they’re not the right employees.”
But Bean believes he may have a solution to the problem: a long-brewing initiative set to launch this summer that could help rebuild the depleted talent pool, not just for his company but for dozens of others throughout the Valley.
Tech Foundry is a new program in the works to recruit, train and place high school students and others at entry-level technology jobs throughout the region.
Backed by private businesses, investors and others, Tech Foundry will be located in about 9,500 square feet of space on the top floor of a downtown Springfield building that houses People’s United Bank at 1391 Main St. The space is now being renovated to resemble a miniature Google or other Silicon Valley companies. That means wide open space with bright furniture, colorful paint schemes, lounge areas with things like a pingpong table and, of course, free food and coffee.
“It’s got to have that cool factor if it’s going to work,” Bean said. “We want the space to be so cool that the kids will get excited about it.”
Bean said the program aims to train students in the skills needed to fill the entry-level technology jobs that are prevalent in the Valley. These are well-paid jobs that involve some training but not a four-year computer science degree.
Students graduating with the latter degree can command enormous salaries in eastern Massachusetts or Silicon Valley, where companies like Google and Amazon are so desperate for their talent that they pay more than twice as much as the few firms in the Valley that need similar workers can offer.
“The kind of work that they’re doing definitely lends itself more to wanting that degree,” Bean said. “The kind of work that a lot of us are doing in the Valley doesn’t need that degree. That’s where Tech Foundry came about.”
The nonprofit will focus on training five main groups of potential workers — high school students, youth with some college, the unemployed, veterans, and the incumbent work force. A one-year pilot program will begin in June with 25 high school juniors nominated from throughout the region by leaders of organizations such as Junior Achievement, Big Brothers and Sisters, and more.
The pilot is only one year to see if the concept works, which will enable the board of directors to seek additional funding and dramatically increase the size of the program. Assuming the pilot is a success, Bean expects the program will enroll 100 high school freshmen and sophomores with the intention of training them throughout their high school career.
Bean said organizers don’t have a strong preference for where the students come from.
“Our vision is to be able to serve as much of the Valley as possible,” Bean said. “And we’re really hoping the high-speed rail system comes online. That would enable us to easily draw from Northampton, Holyoke and Greenfield.”
Bean said Tech Foundry has garnered at least $500,000 in local community grants, corporate sponsorships and private donations to get the program going, including a $50,000 donation from Mass Mutual on Friday. At this point, Tech Foundry is not applying for state or federal money because such funds come with strings attached that might hinder the organization’s ability to change focus quickly. Once the program is established, Bean anticipates applying for public money.
Tech Foundry selected the Springfield site for its visibility in the heart of the region’s largest city and its central location and access to transportation, Bean said.
How it works
Tech Foundry will include a Web portal that allows participating companies — the organization is in negotiation with 17 companies across many sectors for its upcoming pilot — to enter job descriptions of positions they would like to fill. Those descriptions will then be translated into a list of skills required for particular jobs. About 80 percent of the skills students learn will be applicable for most jobs, but companies are able to specify other skills unique to positions they have open.
“Right now, as a job seeker, it can be incredibly difficult to understand if you’re qualified for a job,” Bean said. “We’re helping the employers put some standards and some definition around their specific requirements. We’ll all use the same word to describe our need.”
Students, meanwhile, will earn “badges” by completing online classes. As they earn the badges, students are able to see what jobs are available that dovetail with their new skills. While the courses are self-directed, the work will take place at Tech Foundry and under the guidance of teachers, community leaders and others.
The courses will include specific hard skills, such as mastering an Excel program, and soft skills, such as how to dress professionally or what to say in a job interview. Those jobs will be entry-level, such as data analytics specialists, help desk people and those who set up computer work stations.
One key of the program is to make sure that students see the end goal of securing a job once their coursework is complete.
“As they graduate, we’ll put them into jobs,” Bean said.
Once in those jobs, Tech Foundry’s goal is to create an environment where students not only get jobs but further their training in college by taking advantage of tuition reimbursement programs available at most companies.
“It’s about getting them into a career that will allow them to grow and thrive and succeed without having the requirement be to get all the college done first,” Bean said.
In addition to Bean, founder and president of Tech Foundry’s board, the nonprofit includes Josh Finkel, a part-time executive director who has worked at IBM and Goldman Sachs, and is now a public school teacher in South Hadley; Natalie Sacco, the director of operations, who has a master’s in business operations and a minor in information systems; and an 18-member board of directors that includes experts in work force development, nonprofits, educators, business and IT professionals.