Per Scholas looks to expand by partnering with community-based organizations, while also focusing more on helping alumni of its no-cost tech training to advance in their careers. Also, the what and why on LERs, and trying to make sense of leadership drama at Broward College.
Sign up for the newsletter
A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain
One of the nation’s most established nonprofit tech training providers, Per Scholas, wants to bring its tuition-free IT career programs to more learners and locations. But instead of going it alone, Per Scholas is looking to go deeper in cities through partnerships with community-based workforce organizations.
The community-partner strategy is about cost efficiencies, local trust and insights, and strengthening economies, says Plinio Ayala, the longtime president and CEO of Per Scholas.
“There are so many workforce models across the country, and often there is significant crossover in services being delivered,” Ayala says. “I’ve always believed in the ‘stay in your lane’ approach.”
The group also is focusing more resources on its graduates to help prevent them from stalling out in entry-level jobs. Per Scholas has invested in new upskilling programs for alumni in areas like cloud computing, network management, and project management.
“We’re realizing we need to stay with them for two to three years,” Ayala says.
The evolution of Per Scholas reflects the depth of the challenge in helping more lower-income Americans land good tech jobs. A deep local focus and support for front-line workers appear to be the core components to do this tricky work right.
For example, a study from MDRC found that two years after graduating from Per Scholas, learners were much more likely to be employed in tech and saw substantial wage gains. Graduates earn an average of $21 per hour, the nonprofit said last year. Those results appear particularly strong given that the bootcamp-style programs are free and can be completed in two to four months.
More than 20K students have graduated from Per Scholas programs over the last 25 years, and the group is on track to train 4,500 learners this year. But it wants to enroll 10K students annually, in part by expanding to 25 training locations (up from 21) in the next few years. To get there, Per Scholas will draw from a lower-cost blended learning approach that allows its instructors to simultaneously teach and engage with learners in multiple locations.
Satellite Model: To expand its reach in New York City without opening new campuses, Per Scholas began establishing satellite locations two years ago in partnership with four community-based organizations. It now is training New Yorkers from all five boroughs and 41 districts across the city. Ayala says the plan is to use this strategy to go deeper in its existing markets.
“In leveraging the local community, philanthropic, and employment networks of these partners,” he says, “we can make the best use of each entity’s relative expertise to effectively expand our positive impact with agility and efficiency.”
Per Scholas will build on what it’s done in NYC by teaming up with local groups to offer its training in new locations. The first of these partnerships is with the Denver-based ActivateWork, a nonprofit that seeks to bridge the gap between jobseekers and employers, which I wrote about recently. Per Scholas is also working with Goodwill Industries in Indianapolis.
Ayala says a big plus for this approach is that it allows Per Scholas to tap into existing recruiting and outreach infrastructures, as well as support services like childcare, benefit navigation, legal services, and housing.
This take on cooperation and consolidation in some ways resembles two new locally focused experiments from edX. The 2U-owned online platform has pulled together broad coalitions including a two-year college, community organizations, and funders to offer free tech training in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Huntsville, Alabama.
Likewise, the North Carolina–based Code the Dream works with a network of local organizations to provide career exposure and confidence-building training on tech basics on the front end of the nonprofit bootcamp’s free online courses and apprenticeships in software development. One of Code the Dream’s partners is Refcode, a nonprofit in greater Atlanta that helps refugees and immigrants start careers in software engineering.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel with some of the more technical courses that are already there,” says Brenton Strine, Refcode’s founder and executive program director.
Ayala says the distinctive strength of Per Scholas is its tech skills training and connection-making for graduates to rewarding careers. But the need for skilled tech workers is ever expanding, he says. And the group must continue to work more closely with community-based organizations, especially in cities that can benefit from a proven tech skills training provider.
The Kicker: “Together, we can build a technology workforce as diverse as cities across America,” Ayala says.
A Shared Vision on LERs
Depending on how you look at them, LERs might just be an ed-tech play with slim odds of panning out. Or they could be the linchpin to skills-based systems becoming a thing across education, job training, and careers.
A newly released “ecosystem map” tries to help people make sense of the emerging LER space. The project brought together 10 organizations, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the Society for Human Resource Management.
The goal of the interactive map is to signal to employers, colleges, and workforce boards what’s most important about this work, says Philipp Schmidt, who until last month led MIT’s work with the Digital Credentials Consortium, a coalition partner that contributed to the map’s development.
“That includes better ways for individuals to translate their skills into careers, and for employers to hire and support their staff. It also seeks to begin a discussion about principles, including around equity,” says Schmidt, the chief technology officer for the Axim Collaborative.
LERs are data-driven digital records that capture a person’s skills as an alternative to traditional résumés, the consortium said in an essay about the map project. “LERs are a critical tool for making skills-based hiring a reality.”
In a related effort, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors recently created SkillsFWD, which hopes to seed equitable skills-based hiring systems by tapping LERs. The funder collaborative plans to award eight grants of up to $1.5M each to teams that work to solve LER adoption challenges.
The ecosystem map originated with the response to a report last year from the Digital Credentials Consortium, which found a big gap between the potential for skills-based digital credentials and their adoption by employers.
Walmart was interested in bringing together a group of influential, neutral stakeholders to create a shared view of what’s possible and necessary with LERs, says Sean Murphy, a director with the Walmart Foundation.
“If you could have that group agree to a vision,” he says, “that’s a major movement.”
The resulting high-level view could evolve, says Murphy. And the coalition is looking for feedback. But the goal now is for the various groups and others to take the framing from the map and use it within their organizations and the members they represent. “Let’s drill down deeper,” Murphy says.
The Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accrediting agency, seeks to “help bring clarity to the chaos caused by the tidal wave of credentials available to learners.” HLC’s new Credential Lab will develop an assurance structure for college and learners to know the quality of external content providers in the alternative credential space. Melanie Booth, a former vice president with NC-SARA, will be the lab’s executive director.
Montana announced a project to bring colleges, employers, learners, and local organizations together to design skills-focused educational pathways. Education Design Lab will work with the state’s two-year colleges and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to create 12 to 20 micro-pathways of stackable credentials that can be completed in less than a year and that lead to an associate degree or employment in a high-demand field.
IBM has committed to train 2M learners in AI by 2027, with a focus on underrepresented communities. The company is expanding its AI education collaborations with universities globally while introducing new generative AI coursework through its IBM SkillsBuild, a free course and credential platform. In addition to content on prompt writing and machine learning, IBM is adding AI-enhanced supports to the platform, including chat bot improvements.
The Tech Hubs Program within the CHIPS and Science Act is a major opportunity to provide equitable access to industry for underserved communities and economic growth for the country at large, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. The report’s authors call for the Tech Hubs to incorporate minority-serving institutions and community colleges to help increase diversity in the technology and manufacturing workforce.
The most important factor for student success in gateway math courses at community colleges is not high school preparation or socioeconomic background but who teaches the class, according to a new study from Education Equity Solutions. The researchers analyzed data from roughly 23K students at four California community colleges, finding that instructors were by far the greatest predictor of whether students passed the course.
New America is rolling out a new program on the future of work and innovation policy at a virtual event on Oct. 6, which will feature speakers from the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Labor and the National Science Foundation. The discussion will cover workforce development in emerging technology sectors, how the CHIPS Act is creating new opportunities, and what investments are needed for an inclusive innovation economy.