Looking for Talent? Take the A Train

Companies that are desperate for skilled workers aren't looking in the right places, say the founders of CitySkills.org -- a nonprofit group that's moving young people from the inner city to the Internet.

If talent is the currency of the new economy and technology skills the proxy for economic development, why not connect the dots? So argues Michael Margolis, cofounder and director of CitySkills.org, a national support organization for nonprofits that provide Web-related job training. According to Margolis and his colleagues, there is a pool of talent available -- in overlooked urban areas, where underemployment persists despite the booming economy. But you won't hear the phrase "social responsibility" escape from Margolis's lips. His argument is purely economic.

"Community organizations that offer meaningful job training are in the business of creating talent," says Margolis, 23. And great talent is certainly easy to sell these days: In the past year, the seven organizations that are part of the CitySkills Digital Workforce Alliance have placed more than 400 graduates in career-track, entry-level Web-development jobs with starting salaries that are between $25,000 and $35,000 -- typical for many such positions.

Forget about dead-end data-entry courses: In an economy that's driven by innovation, the alliance knows that it must arm its grads with skills that advance careers, such as database development and HTML. To that end, CitySkills -- an offshoot of CitySoft Inc., the Boston-based Web-development company that hires largely from urban neighborhoods -- customizes its training programs to fit the needs of local employers.

At Homeboyz Interactive, a faith-based training-and-placement group in Milwaukee, the curriculum includes classes in JavaScript, Photoshop, and other Web-development tools. The innovative eight-month program also includes three months of paid contract work with local employers.

Besides creating a vital earned-income revenue stream for Homeboyz (last year, 70% of the organization's $425,000 operating budget came from such income), the program's design enables students to develop a portfolio of work that they can take with them to future job interviews.

"The great thing about the Internet is that what matters isn't who you are but whether you can do the work," says Father Jim Holub, 39, director of Homeboyz. Such sentiments are all part of CitySkills's subtly subversive manifesto, one that is rooted in the notion that community investment is a "best practice" that corporations can't afford to ignore. Wisely, the CitySkills mantra appeals directly to today's fast-changing, competitive environment: Results are what matter. Of the 124 people (average age: 19) who have gone through the Homeboyz program since 1996, for example, all but two have graduated to full-time Web-development jobs, and only five have left their initial employers.

For David May, 41, vice president of the user-experience group at Xpedior Inc., a Chicago-based e-business firm, it is Homeboyz's ability to turn out grads with hands-on experience and the savvy to learn on the fly that sets it apart from its competitors.

"We don't want cookie-cutter certification programs that just teach people how to use a tool," May says. "We need programs like Homeboyz, programs that teach people to create new ways of using something." His message is clear: These new-economy recruits must be able to reinvent themselves.

That's exactly what Rolando Rodriguez has done. Until two years ago, Rodriguez, now 21, was a high-school dropout working for just above minimum wage in a factory's shipping-and-receiving department. But in 1998, he joined up with Homeboyz. During his eight months there, he earned his high-school diploma and landed an internship in HTML development at Xpedior, where he now earns almost twice what he did at his previous job. "Factory work can only take you so far," says Rodriguez, who is learning new programs so he can build more-sophisticated Web pages. "When you have computer skills, there's more room for advancement."

"Narrowing the digital divide is about creating wealth, and that starts with creating real jobs with real skills," adds Margolis. "Companies need to compete for talent in Harlem the same way that they compete for talent at MIT."

Contact Michael Margolis by email (michael@cityskills.org) , or visit CitySkills and its Digital Workforce Alliance on the Web (www.cityskills.org) .

Sidebar: Home-Team Advantage

Tapping into community-based training programs is more than a charitable gesture -- it's a long-term investment in talented, motivated workers, says Michael Margolis, the director of CitySkills.org. Here's how to ensure that your company gets as good as it gives.

Volunteer.

Volunteering helps you figure out if a group is adequately preparing its participants: Are they learning project-management and leadership skills as well as technical tools? If so, you've done your due diligence.

Hire.

If you're already sold on the idea of hiring from community-based programs, "don't think of a person as simply good for a job," Margolis advises. "Think of that person as good for an organization. Think of a career, not just a task."

Invest.

Build partnerships with tech-training organizations the way you do with tech startups. Donate software, hardware, office space, and training materials. By narrowing the digital divide, you are improving the capacity of the entire community.

Learn.

Sally Jo Fifer, 42, executive director of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Video Coalition, a member of the CitySkills alliance, attributes her organization's success in Web training to its focus on continuous learning. The organization trains about 150 adults a year, placing about 80% of them in jobs. "Lifelong learning skills are critical in the IT environment," Fifer says. "If your workers continue to learn, they'll remain competitive."

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