Training a high-tech workforce in Southern Virginia
Southern Virginia used to rely on farming and factory work to drive its rural economy. With changing times, factories shut down as manufacturing relocated for cheaper production costs. As farming was unable to provide enough employment for jobseekers, people began to look and move elsewhere for jobs.
In recent years, job opportunities have returned, as tech companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have opened datacenters in the area. But these opportunities returned to an area that was largely unprepared for them. “Our community leaders knew 32 years ago when we first got started that if we were going to prepare workers for the new economy, it was going to require access to higher education,” explains Dr. Betty Adams, Executive Director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) in South Boston, Virginia.
Reacting to a changing local job market with hands-on education at SVHEC
Prompted by requests from arriving companies seeking IT workers, SVHEC started its IT Academy program offering courses and training for certifications in server, network, and security skills. “Microsoft has been here from the very outset,” says Kelly Shotwell, the IT Academy Program Coordinator at SVHEC, “helping us design the training space and figure out what kinds of programs we needed to offer, what kinds of certifications were relevant.”
Microsoft has made significant investments at SVHEC through datacenter hardware donations, sponsorships, and mentorship. Students enrolled in SVHEC’s program get hands-on access to decommissioned datacenter equipment that Microsoft donates, which helps ensure the learning environment closely resembles what they’ll see when they go to work.
Microsoft also funds a scholarship program that supports groups often underrepresented in STEM fields, giving them an opportunity to get into high-tech roles. Abdullah Bell, a Microsoft scholarship recipient and recent graduate from the IT Academy, was quickly selected for an apprenticeship with a local automotive simulation company, which includes two years of additional coursework and the assurance of a job when finished. Bell says, “After taking these classes and after receiving all of these opportunities, I found my dream job at twenty years old, and going to work every day is so much fun.”
Additionally, Microsoft employees provide mentorship to answer any kind of questions students ask, from what the work is like to how to prepare for an interview.
“I know learning from a book means a lot, but if you learn hands-on it means 10 times more to me, and that's how I learn best.”—Jermaine Jackson, SVHEC DCA participant
Developing 21st-century skills at SVCC
Nearby in Southern Virginia, Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC) provides a two-year Information Systems Technology degree to help prepare students for a variety of careers in technology. Located in an economically depressed community, the school helps students overcome barriers and prepares them for employment within the community.
As with SVHEC, Microsoft provides curriculum support, scholarships, and hardware donations to help students learn valuable IT skills. Brenda Cross, a participant from SVCC, notes the importance of this holistic approach. “Sure, you have your text learning from books and your basic skills. But you also have that datacenter feel. You’re looking to pursue a different career in IT and having hands-on experiences lets you see that environment and say, “Hey, I might be working with this one day.” It builds your confidence once you’re in that class.”
Microsoft’s contribution and mentorship in a community where poverty is one of the largest barriers to success “has been very beneficial to students,” says Dr. Chad Patton, Dean of Career and Occupational Technology at SVCC. Students can also be recommended by instructors to apply for an externship at the local Microsoft datacenter. Says Dr. Patton, “This is an amazing opportunity for our students to actually be able to work for a world-class organization.”
Transforming communities by furthering technology education
“If you change a student, that changes a family, and if you change enough families, you change a community,” remarks Dr. Patton. “I’ve seen everything that Microsoft has done for this local community and it’s just amazing. I think the biggest thing they’ve done is really to show people a pathway to a great career and show them that they don’t have to leave this area that they love in order to be successful and take care of their family.” Says Jackson, “For me, this was my second chance, and I know a lot of people feel like they need a second chance in life.”
Microsoft’s workforce development efforts are not only helping to prepare students for a career in its own datacenters, but as Anthony Putorek, the Senior Workforce Development Project Manager for Microsoft, says of Microsoft’s goals for the program, “I want this education to prepare students for jobs anywhere in the technology field. Whether they want to stay here at home and work for a small business, work for the school, start their own IT business, or travel somewhere else—I want them to be able to have the skillset to be able to go out and compete in a technology world.” At SVHEC, Dr. Adams reflected that the ubiquity of digital and IT “cuts across all professions.” From healthcare to public school workers to small businesses, “they’re also helping these other industries in southern Virginia, so it’s just a real win-win.”