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Per Scholas, Bronx Job-Training Non-Profit With Record Of Success, Expands To Ohio

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Adrienne Peart, a student in Per Scholas's CompTIA A+ certification class.
Adrienne Peart, a student in Per Scholas's CompTIA A+ certification class.

NEW YORK -- Inside a building on a nondescript stretch of 138th Street in the Bronx, past the Bruckner Expressway and a U-Haul self-storage building, a non-profit organization is giving disadvantaged New Yorkers a chance at a career in computers.

The group, Per Scholas, has achieved success by following a deceptively simple strategy: give students the skills that companies want in employees. Almost 3,800 people have received certifications in computer skills through Per Scholas classes. Now Per Scholas is expanding to Columbus, the capital of a crucial swing state, Ohio, amid a national discussion over how to create jobs during the longest-lasting unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.

If it can work there, it may demonstrate that the Per Scholas model -- called "sectoral training" because of its focus on rapidly growing sectors of the economy like information technology -- can be replicated. Some experts believe sectoral training has the potential to shake up the complicated world of job-training programs, which politicians love, but studies show have had mixed results. This may be Per Scholas's moment to go beyond the borough.

"I am a Bronx boy and I've lived through some of the very bad times of this borough," said Plinio Ayala, the CEO of Per Scholas. "And recognize in many ways a good-paying job mitigates many of the issues that exist in these communities. And you can only get a good-paying job if you have the skills they require."

To provide those skills, Per Scholas, when it was founded in 1995, focused on providing students with computer training to close the digital divide. Later, the school turned to providing free certification in information technology skills.

After a rigorous application process, students, who must have graduated from high school or received a GED, attend full-day classes five days a week. Once they've earned certifications, many have all they need to start jobs, like working on a help desk at a large corporation.

"This is clearly a jobs program. That's how it's intended," said Ayala. "Close to 100 percent of people here go into work," instead of to college.

It sounds simple: Giving people the skills they need for a job, then connecting them with employers. But it's not how jobs training programs have worked.

Historically, many people out of a job have gone to community colleges for training. Those colleges have a mixed mission. They are supposed to train students for local work, and at the same time prepare them to transfer to four-year colleges. That mixed mandate, along with weak pipelines to employers and limited money for training in "soft skills" like resume-writing, has hamstrung community college students' job prospects.

Many colleges, said Ayala, "will not admit to this in public, but will say this in private -- that they're not in the placement business."

Sectoral training, combined with help on "soft skills" that employers value, like interviewing, is one of the best ways to train people to get a job, according to Lawrence Katz, a former labor economist in the Clinton administration who studies such programs.

The field, Katz said, has "very many well-intentioned advocacy groups who are doing things that there's no evidence that's helpful" -- but Per Scholas is different.

For Adrienne Peart, 33, getting a job is the goal. A Bronx native, she was employed with the U.S. Postal Service in Connecticut. But she read the writing on the wall for her employer, which has gone through dramatic job cuts and faces even more. So, after picking up a bachelor's degree in IT at Monroe College, she enrolled in Per Scholas to get additional practical skills.

"As I look for jobs, I see that they also want you to have that A-plus" certification, Peart said.

With her easy smile and warm demeanor, it's hard to imagine that Peart won't quickly find a job once she's received that certification. Other classmates laughed with glee as she showed The Huffington Post a picture of a cake -- sprinkled with bacon -- that she'd cooked up for the class.

But it's not just personable students like Peart who find success. A study of Per Scholas by Public/Private Ventures, commissioned by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, one of its major funders, found that participants, in their second year out of the program, earned 32 percent more than a control group. They were also about 10 percent more likely to have a job.

Results like that are why Ayalas is eager to expand to Ohio -- to see whether Per Scholas is just some lucky fluke in the Bronx. An earlier effort at a satellite operation in Miami wound down after training 600 people in seven years, because funding dried up. This time, Per Scholas has taken care to identify cities where private funding will be available. Creating IT Futures Foundation, an industry association, is providing seed money.

"We hoped that by becoming a national organization, we'd have a greater opportunity to influence policy around this issue of workforce development than we would if we were just a New York organization," Ayala said.

The first class in Columbus will start in October, just before the election. As they consider its successes, politicians of both major parties will have elements to cheer.

About three-quarters of Per Scholas's funding comes from private sources, and it works closely with major corporations.But at the same time, the organization sets up connections with local community colleges to make sure credits are transferable, should students want to continue with their educations. Ayala said he is suspicious of for-profit colleges that put students deeply in debt without providing meaningful skills.

For Peart, just looking to get a job, her training will have immediate benefits. She said she is confident that she won't have much trouble finding a job after she receives her certification. And in the meantime, the class has been "fulfilling," she said. "I came thinking I knew everything. But I've learned a lot."

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