Minnesota’s Information Technology (IT) industry sector is struggling, like so many others, to find skilled workers. An innovative new joint venture between Summit Academy OIC and Atomic Data Company is working to change that. The partnership focuses on preparing low-income people and those from historically disadvantaged groups to fill the IT jobs currently going begging in the Twin Cities region.

The program, which is free, offers 20 weeks of intensive technology training to carefully selected applicants, who then go on to well-paying jobs at Atomic Data in downtown Minneapolis. Summit Academy OIC, a non-profit in North Minneapolis, provides the instruction.

The goal of the new program, explains the Star Tribune, is to “quickly move promising but disadvantaged young people into middle-class careers, debt-free, in an industry hungry for workers.” “The radical part,” the paper notes, is that the program bypasses “the traditional community college pathway.”

Gonkama Johnson, aged 30 and the son of Liberian immigrant parents, was a member of the program’s first class, which numbered 19 and graduated in December 2018. Johnson grew up in Brooklyn Park, briefly attended Concordia University in St. Paul and ran through a series of low-paying jobs before ending up homeless. Then one day he noticed an advertisement for the Atomic Data/Summit Academy program. It “literally saved my life,” he told the Star Tribune.

Today, Johnson works at Atomic Data and makes $36,000 a year, with full benefits. In three years, he expects to pull down $60,00, and in five years he stands a chance to double his entry-level salary.

The Star Tribune tells the story of the genesis of the program that gave Johnson access to a high-tech career, along with a new lease on life. It starts with Jim Wolford, CEO of Atomic Data:

Wolford founded Atomic Data in 2001, but in recent years has grown dissatisfied with the quality of job candidates coming out of universities and tech schools. “They don’t know that they don’t know,” he said, complaining about having to extensively retrain and update new workers, and fretting over the lax attitudes of many privileged millennials who seemed less interested in the work than the perks (foosball, beer taps, bringing your dog to work, etc.)

“It wasn’t working for us and our customers, so we decided to do it ourselves,” he said.

Wolford learned about Summit Academy, which has trained at-risk people for years in the construction and health care fields. Summit’s CEO, Louis King, was interested in expanding into technology, which offers “comparably higher wages, growth potential and stability,” in the paper’s words. As King likes to say: “The best social service is a job.”

In planning their joint venture—with its five months of intensive, tuition-free training—Wolford expected a cost per student of $12,000. This included $2,000 covered by a state grant to Summit, $6,000 from Atomic Data, and $4,000 for the extra time Atomic’s staff devotes to assist in training students:

As for rewards, Wolford said he’s getting a workforce that’s more loyal, will work harder and will stay longer. As for society, he said, it is getting a stable, contributing worker who’s adding to the economy, not subtracting from it.

The new program is rigorous and highly selective. Of the 142 people who applied for the first Atomic/Summit class, 115 did not make the final cut, either because they failed one or both screening tests (general knowledge and computer literacy) or had a criminal record.

Atomic’s workforce is already one-third non-white, more than double the industry average.

The Atomic/Summit program already has many fans. One is Mike Christianson, Hennepin County’s recently retired workforce development director:

While a number of private employers, nonprofits and governments are scrambling to form training partnerships, he said, there’s not enough urgency, especially in the public sector, including most of the community colleges. “Industry needs a quicker response,” he said, “not a trip around the barn.”

Christenson also praises Hennepin’s college-linked “Pathways” program, which is now moving 2,000 disadvantaged students a year into jobs in six fields.

As for Gonkama Johnson, he is deeply grateful to Atomic and Summit for helping him get a start in a field he loves. “They gave me a chance, and now I’m on my way up,” he says.

As the Star Tribune explains, during the training, Johnson “saw many faces at Atomic that looked like his:”

“I feel kind of self-liberated,” he said, “that as a person of color I can make it in tech, which has been seen as unattainable.” Most people he grew up with, he explained, had no clue that tech might be open to them. Now, he said, he wants to become an ambassador of sorts for young people of color interested in technology who have doubts about making it.

Why else did he take his new job?

“I wanted to buy food and pay rent,” he said, surveying his new sleek office quarters and pondering his quick trip from the hopelessness of the streets to the brink of a middle-class life.

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