A collaboration between a tech-focused nonprofit and the Missouri Job Center is generating new talent for the information technology industry via free training classes.
The Geek Foundation began offering a pair of programs last summer in IT and web development for adults looking to change careers or get reestablished in the workforce. Both classes, held twice weekly for six months, graduated a total of 11 students, said Krista Peryer, the nonprofit’s president. The second session will wrap up in April.
“These are our beginner-friendly classes,” Peryer said, noting registration between the two current classes is 20 students. “Anybody without experience can come into these classes and learn the skills they need to move into these new careers.”
Registration numbers are well below the maximum capacity of 30 students per class, but Peryer said the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact.
“We had a lot of people that wound up dropping out over fears of the pandemic, and sometimes people had to quarantine and missed too much class,” she said. “Our classes do go very fast. You can’t miss a whole lot of class and keep up.
“We’re pretty happy with those numbers for a pandemic year.”
The nonprofit, co-founded in 2015 by Peryer and Maranda Provance, provides interactive education, resources and support to future technology professionals of all ages. In addition to its six-month adult classes, the organization offers computer programming, coding and robotics programs for children and teens. Peryer also is a freelance writer and graphic designer, while Provance is director of engineering at digital marketing firm Mostly Serious LLC.
The new tech classes are taught by Jonathan Griffin Long, IT director for nonprofit Drew Lewis Foundation Inc., and Russ Kaminsky, a software developer who works remotely for Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Insurance Technologies LLC.
Peryer said the adult classes are designed to reach a broader audience.
“Our mission is to try and reach women, minority groups and low-income populations,” Peryer said. “We really wanted to make sure there’s just no barriers at all.”
Officials say class cost per person is roughly $3,500 – an amount covered by the Missouri Job Center as part of nearly $500,000 it received last summer in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding. Cody Naeger, senior workforce development specialist with the Job Center, said the federal funds are earmarked for tuition in workforce training covering five areas: IT, manufacturing, health care, transportation and construction.
Money for tuition is paid via CARES Act funding to the Geek Foundation, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Total tuition for the current classes adds up to around $70,000.
“It’s part of our overall center strategy to target the IT industry in our area because it’s high-growth and in-demand jobs that are going to be long-term viable for employment,” Naeger said.
He said the classes are free to those who meet eligibility guidelines, such as being considered low income or a dislocated worker. Based on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines, low income is determined as earning $12,760 annually for an individual, he said. A family of four is eligible if annual household income is under $26,200. Those who utilize food stamps, receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits or are without homes also qualify, he said.
Peryer said keeping the classes free is vital to maximize accessibility for all.
“We try to really make it incredibly accessible so that there are no barriers for people to attend class,” she said, noting day care also is provided. “We provide laptops, we provide books and materials for the IT program.”
It’s not the first time the nonprofit has offered the IT and web development classes for free. The curriculum for the classes was developed at the start of last year after the foundation received a $24,000 grant from Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. Peryer said she connected with the Drew Lewis Foundation to generate potential student interest and Pitt Technology Group LLC to help tailor the curriculum.
Peryer said soon after the Job Center moved last summer into The Fairbanks from its former north-side office at the Cox North Medical Tower, she began conversations with city of Springfield Workforce Development interim Director Sally Payne. The CARES Act funds the agency just received were the opportunity the nonprofit needed to continue the classes beyond 2020, Peryer said.
“They heard about what we were doing and asked if we wanted to partner,” Peryer said.
Funding for the classes beyond April are still under discussion, she said. Classes are taught at The Fairbanks and O’Reilly Center for Hope.
Kevin Waterland, Pitt Technology co-owner and general manager, said his company hired a graduate from both the IT and web development classes in conjunction with its new internship program.
“We chose to expand a little bit and let them come in. We offered them internship positions,” he said, noting the graduates earn full pay and benefits for the six-month internship. “With the program, there needed to be some hands-on training in addition to the curriculum.”
Both started last month shadowing staff and are already up to speed, Waterland said, adding the classes “worked out perfectly” to prepare the interns. The new hires increased the staff to 38, up from 35 a year ago.
“My plan is to try and hire a couple interns out of every round of classes,” he said of the Geek Foundation program.
Pitt Technology’s employee growth is reflective of national job demand in the tech sector.
Employer job postings are starting off on a high note for 2021, according to an employment analysis by trade association CompTIA. Core IT positions surpassed 232,000 nationwide in January, a month-over-month increase of around 26,000. Software and application developers accounted for 67,200, the largest portion of job openings. The national unemployment rate for IT occupations was 2.4% in January, down from 3% in December, according to the report.
Naeger said the Job Center frequently has IT job listings from Monett-based financial software firm Jack Henry & Associates Inc. (Nasdaq: JKHY) and Springfield-based retailer O’Reilly Automotive Inc. (Nasdaq: ORLY). The Geek Foundation classes provide an opportunity to connect employers with fresh faces in the industry looking to enter it on the ground floor, he said.
Tech job growth is projected to continue for Missouri.
A Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry report in 2019 noted the state’s technology workforce is expected to grow between 2018 and 2023 by 9.5%, which ranked it ninth in the U.S.
“These jobs are here to stay. They are just becoming more robust,” Naeger said. “If we want to make sure that in five to 10 years we have the workforce to fill these jobs and attract high-level employers to keep coming to our area, we have to support the new pipelines that pop up and try to help reach people at every level.”
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