Out of Welfare and Into IT: A 'Win-Win' in N.Y.

Computer World –

Less than a year ago, Jaime Colon was part of a problem. The economic boom had passed him by, leaving him an unemployed 34-year-old living on welfare in Brooklyn with a wife and 11 children.

Today, Colon is part of the solution, earning $50,000 per year as a systems engineer at a value-added reseller. He's anticipating a 10% raise once he passes a certification test for which he's been preparing. In a white-hot job market, Colon has been offered higher pay at competing companies.

"These guys treat me just great and pay me fairly," says Colon of his Long Island-based employer. "I feel an obligation to stay with this company. For my kids, I'm a better role model now. Sometimes I can't believe what happened."

What went into the making of Jaime Colon, systems administrator and loyal company employee? By his own admission, he had no marketable skills a year ago when he was doing odd jobs, mandated by New York City's welfare office. He had a high school equivalency diploma and was pretty good in math, but he didn't have a dime's worth of IT experience.

Colon wanted what thousands of welfare recipients must want: a chance for a job and a career. Some people feel that the answer to the IT skills crunch is more H-1B visas. But that wouldn't do much for some Americans itching to get off welfare and into the mainstream.

Fortunately for Colon, John Foley had a problem that's shared by just about every company and organization across America today. As a manager of sales channel development at Sun Microsystems, Foley's resellers just can't find enough skilled IT workers. One look at the double-digit pay increases shown by Computerworld's annual salary survey [Business, Sept. 4] confirms that the skills crunch is as alive as ever, with little relief in sight.

The late Robert F. Kennedy said, "Some men see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dare to dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?' " Foley has a bit of that spirit in him. Acting on his own, he approached the welfare office and the mayor's office in New York with a proposal to provide 10 weeks of intensive IT training for a dozen welfare recipients.

Foley wasn't driven solely by altruism. His resellers needed skilled workers, particularly those inclined to embrace almost continuous training to accommodate today's dynamic nature of IT. Foley's plan was to train his students in Sun Solaris skills. But that's the beauty of capitalism. You can act totally in your own self-interest and end up helping others along the way.

Welfare officials told him: "Have at it!" But they predicted a 20% weekly attrition rate among his students and told Foley he'd be lucky to place a quarter of his graduates in jobs related to the training.

Colon was among the first group of trainees, selected from a larger group based on interviews and related experience -- which was generally very sparse. Twenty percent dropout rates? Not with this group: 100% graduated. And of the 36 graduates who have gone through the training to date, 90% have been placed in IT jobs, with an average starting salary of $46,000. And about 40% of them are women, mostly single mothers.

Foley wants to expand his experiment to other U.S. cities. He's not doing anything that any number of employee-starved managers couldn't do, other than having the guts to do it.

Meanwhile, on most workdays at around 6 p.m., instead of lounging in front of the television, Colon is heading home on the Long Island Railroad, usuallly talking on his cell phone to one of the several clients he helps service. "I never had a bank account and could never buy my kids school clothes," he says. "Now I do both. I'm going to earn more and get more training and take advantage of what's out there."

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