Re-equipping the Underemployed

A new Innovate Birmingham initiative helps disciplined workers move from menial to meaningful.

UAB’s Josh Carpenter (left) was a leader on the $6 million grant that is providing computer skills education for underemployed young adults like Allanté Jowers. Now Jowers also works at UAB. Photos by Cary Norton

Before becoming an information technology professional, Allanté Jowers was a cook at a Birmingham country club. The job, he says, offered no chance for career advancement and was “mentally unstimulating.”

Jowers says he wanted to go to college but could not afford the tuition.

“I worked many long nights and holidays cooking upscale dinners for Birmingham’s elite, ” he says. “Financial issues kept me from finishing school. I moved to Birmingham in 2012, but I stopped attending [school] due to an overdue balance.”

Then Jowers spotted an ad on Facebook announcing a free training program by the Innovate Birmingham Regional Workforce Partnership. The program aimed to prepare young adults like him for careers in IT through a free, three-month, fast-track specialist training boot camp. “Having an interest in technology, ” says Jowers, “I felt inclined to apply.”

Jowers won a spot in the program and soon began 12 weeks of intensive coursework at Innovation Depot, a high-tech business incubator in downtown Birmingham. Jowers and the other students learned about computer hardware and operating systems and how to help customers troubleshoot computer problems.

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Last May, Jowers graduated from the program and, not long afterward, landed a job as a help desk analyst at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Jowers says he now has plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in information sciences and later an MBA. Meanwhile, he says he enjoys his new IT career.

“This program has set my life on a different course, ” says Jowers. “I’m now in an environment where hard work is not only noticed, but rewarded.”

The Innovate Birmingham Regional Workforce Partnership involves leaders from the city’s business, education and civic community. The partnership program plans to take 925 young adults between the ages of 17 and 29 who are unemployed or working low-wage jobs and train them for high-paying, in-demand information technology jobs.

Funding for Innovate Birmingham comes from a federal, four-year, $6 million America’s Promise grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Innovate Birmingham is one of 23 regional workforce development groups across the country to win the grants.

In Alabama, technology workers are in high demand. Last year, the Alabama Department of Labor listed computer user support specialists and software developers among the 25 most high-demand jobs.

In the Birmingham-Hoover metro area alone, entry-level computer user support specialists can make about $15.97 an hour, according to the Department’s Labor Market Information Division. An entry-level software developer can make as much as $33 an hour.

The idea for Innovate Birmingham started from University of Alabama at Birmingham President Ray Watts’ desire to extend the university’s resources to the community so more people could find a gateway to UAB for educational opportunities, says Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., director of external affairs in UAB’s Office of the President and the principal investigator for the Innovate Birmingham grant.

“We found that these high-demand occupations were across industries and that we needed to devote more resources to create opportunities for these 26, 000 underemployed young people in our community to obtain those skills and potentially take advantage of opportunities of employment with those employer partners, ” Carpenter says.

“So the plan for Innovate Birmingham was to bridge those gaps between people who want to work, educators and employers and create a seamless pathway for young people at low cost or tuition-free opportunities, ” he says.

Although the program targets teens and adults ages 17 to 26, Carpenter says the grant allows them to accept students through age 29. The program offers three options: first, a 12-week intensive program to learn coding for web development or IT specialist credentials; second, information technology classwork at Jefferson State or Lawson State community college, leading to a certificate or associate degree, or third, UAB enrollment leading to a bachelor’s degree. Grants and scholarships are available for the college and UAB options.

Martin Townsend now works as a workstation tech for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama.

Ninety-six students have participated in the boot camps so far, he says. The scholarship options for the community college and UAB will be available beginning in spring 2018.

Jowers, who chose the IT specialist boot camp, says he learned basic software and hardware concepts, as well as soft skills such as how to interact with customers. The class simulations, weekly quizzes, assigned reading and guest speakers helped motivate him to succeed.

“I liked how the simulations resembled real-life situations, ” says Jowers. “I was working a full-time job during the program. Monday through Friday I was in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then I would leave class and go straight to work.”

Jowers’ classmate, Martin Townsend, says he applied for the IT specialist program because he wanted to boost his technology skills.

“From a young age, I’ve worked with computer systems, ” says Townsend, “first familiarizing myself with a Macintosh LC my mom got from the thrift store.”

Like Jowers, Townsend says he found the coursework to be intense.

“It required you to commit and apply yourself to the curriculum, learning the ins and outs of what makes a computer work, ” says Townsend.

Besides the colleges and UAB, Innovate Birmingham has 30 employer partners, companies committed to interviewing the program’s graduates. Those companies include Alabama Power, Brasfield & Gorrie General Contractors, McLeod Software, EBSCO, Birmingham Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Mercedes-Benz, Honda Motor Manufacturing of Alabama, Mayer Electric Supply, Regions, Tech Birmingham and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama.

So far, 13 of the boot camp graduates have snagged jobs, Carpenter says. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama hired Townsend as a workstation tech to troubleshoot computer problems for other staffers.

“We were looking for support center and desktop technicians, ” says Scott McGlaun, the chief information officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama. “These associates are our first and second-level IT support personnel.”

McGlaun describes Innovate Birmingham’s talent pool as strong.

“We made multiple offers but were only able to hire one because of the demand from other employers seeking high-quality candidates, ” says McGlaun. “The associate we did hire is very competent technically, possesses a strong work ethic, embraces individual accountability and thus is thriving as a contributing member of the team.”

Gail Allyn Short and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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