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Harlem-Based Program Looks to Close Skills Gap in the Workforce

By Jeff Mays | December 10, 2012 1:56pm

HARLEM — Crystal Serraty had dreamed of a career as an NYPD officer after she graduated from Monroe College with a criminal justice degree, but that dream was shattered by an accident.

Then she found out that the New York City Housing Authority was offering advanced training in information technology for residents through a Harlem-based nonprofit called Workforce Opportunity Services.

From 300 applicants, Serraty, 25, was one of 30 chosen to participate in specially-designed classes at Columbia University's Fu Engineering School, where she learned about quality assurance for websites. As part of her training, she was placed in a paid internship with Bank Leumi.

"We learned how to make project plans and perform quality assurance," she said.

"They did a lot of soft skills teaching to show us how to deal with the clientele. It felt good to learn so much, and  I'm not putting myself in danger like if I became a cop."

Serraty recently graduated from the program along with 14 others. She received a certificate in computer technology support and quality assurance sponsored by Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and Workforce Opportunity Services.

She has plans to continue her education.

"I think I will gain more experience and climb that ladder," she said.

"I have full faith."

Brian Watson, director of business outreach for Workforce Opportunity Services, said the 8-year-old company has created a template for addressing the so-called "skills gap" where employers, despite the 7.7 percent unemployment rate, say they are having a hard time finding workers equipped with the skills they need to grow their businesses.

"We like to think of it as a solution to the skills-gap problem," he said.

"Our whole idea is to train them to do a specific job and fill a specific role. If you go to college and get a degree in computer science it doesn't necessarily prepare you to do a job."

Some companies have been criticized for being unwilling to spend the funds to give new employees the skills they need to succeed at available jobs. But there are companies willing to step up and pay to train workers, Watson said.

The program focuses on two groups, underserved high school graduates and military veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And rather than considering itself a typical "program," the agency sees itself as a consulting firm that is helping to create solutions for its clients.

"Every single person that comes through our program is underserved but they know they are not getting a handout," Watson said.

"In our model we believe these students are highly capable but untapped. Corporations just don't know this talent pool exists."

For example, NYCHA came to Workforce Opportunity Services to explain they had a need in their information technology department. Bank Leumi and TMP Worldwide were also looking to deepen the talent pool in their information technology departments.

Workforce Opportunity Services and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science  designed a tailored, 16-month program that included heavy classroom instruction at the university followed by a part-time and then full-time consulting job at one of the three companies.

The students also learned about corporate culture and the social and interactive skills they would need to thrive there.

"It's a try-before-you-buy model that companies like. As opposed to getting someone off the street they have a great deal of contribution in shaping and molding the person they know they will get," Watson said.

Many of those in the program will stay on with the companies they were trained at and become full-time employees. Workforce Opportunity Service will pay for up to two courses a semester at a community college after the students graduate, and many of the companies also offer tuition reimbursement.

"We flipped the model on its head and put work first and education second," said Watson.

"Five or six years down the road they will earn a bachelor's degree and have a job and be making a nice salary with benefits and they won't have any debt. It's not a bad position to be in for a 24-year-old."

That's the position Christine Garth, 24, a resident of a NYCHA development in Harlem, finds herself in after recently receiving her certificate from the program.

She was especially attracted to the program because of the chance to study at Columbia. Even though she had studied business administration at a technical college, finding a job was hard, said Garth, who has a 2-year-old son.

"Most people, when I looked for a job, they wanted years of experience," she said.

"Just starting out, I didn't have years of experience. This was a door opener.

"This not only provided a better job but gives me a chance to further my education. After my other school, I didn't know what I was going to do."

Garth had just had her son when she applied for the program. She says she's proof that anyone with determination can make it. Now she plans to further her education and hopes to have her own business one day.

"This program is pushing me on a path that I want to be on," Garth said.

And that's the selling point Watson says he uses to attract other young people to the program.

"People say 'What's the catch?' and we say there's no catch, you just have to work hard," said Watson.

"If you are a young person who wants to get to a better place in life, you want to put in the time and effort and have thirst for knowledge, this program will give you more than you can describe," he added.