Program helps laid-off IT workers
refresh, learn new skills
By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 3/30/03
NASHUA - Inspired by discussions on how to help laid-off tech workers reenter the job market when the economy rebounds, Caroline Bogart hit upon an idea: a free weekly class where information technology professionals could learn the latest new tool for writing software, develop a website for a nonprofit, and update their resumes in the process.
Called the Schoolhouse, the weekly class began in January 2002 in a room donated by Daniel Webster College in Nashua. The grass-roots effort sprang from discussions between Bogart and several software engineers who were concerned that laid-off technology workers were not finding jobs or updating their skills.
Since then, the Schoolhouse has grown from 10 to 46 members, many of them unemployed. But 20 former participants have dropped out because they landed new jobs, said Bogart, a contract engineer and founder of Bogart Computing LLC. in Litchfield, N.H.
''There were several reasons for starting the Schoolhouse,'' she said. ''There was the altruistic reason, which was a desire to help people. There was also a tangible outcome: Members could come together to learn something new, and then use what they'd learned to build software that would make them more marketable, whether they were unemployed or employed. It was something they could put on a resume.''
Under the program, IT professionals meet weekly to teach each other ASP.NET, a software development tool created by Microsoft Corp. to develop applications for the Web. This year, after completing several training sessions, the group began working together to create a website for The Way Home, a Manchester homeless shelter.
In January, the Software Association of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Workforce Opportunity Council announced a $187,000 federal grant to develop two, 16-week federally funded retraining programs for dislocated information technology workers based on the volunteer project that Schoolhouse founders had launched. The pilot programs will be offered in Portsmouth and Keene.
At a time when the IT jobless rate is believed to be nearly 4.8 percent in New Hampshire, higher than the state's overall unemployment rate of 4.3 percent, the pilot programs are too small to make real inroads. In all, 16,000 IT workers lost jobs in May 2001 alone, the last date for which such figures are available. Since then, layoffs have mounted, said James McKim, chairman of the Software Association of New Hampshire, a trade group with 250 corporate members.
The pilot programs will train only 30 IT professionals, acknowledged Duncan Phillips of the New Hampshire Workforce Opportunity Council. He said, however, that more programs could open across the state if the pilots are successful. Phillips added that state officials decided to take a closer look at the Schoolhouse after James McKim, chairman of the New Hampshire Software Association, contacted them. The trade group has 250 corporate members.
''James McKim talked about the Schoolhouse going beyond the usual training experience for high-tech workers,'' said Phillips. ''Under [federal law] programs selected for federal funding must lead to certification of some kind, as well as employment and wage increases for participants. We're taking a risk, but we felt these programs were strong, and we wanted to support them.''
State officials reasoned that McKim had witnessed the boom-and-bust cycles that characterize the technology industry, and understood the challenges employers face when trying to recruit. He also knew about the difficulties laid-off IT workers confronted when attempting to land new jobs. Employers wanted recruits who had kept abreast of the latest technologies and could communicate what they knew, he said. Workers, by contrast, wanted to be employed by companies that understood their value.
Oftentimes, McKim said, there was a division. ''IT professionals tend to talk techie and HR people do not,'' he said ''The human resources staff doesn't always understand what the hiring group manager is searching for. This causes employers to bypass good people.''
So McKim, whose association will run the pilot programs, proposed the two new programs that will build on the original Schoolhouse concept to include an executive coach to teach soft skills to IT workers, state career coaches who would target openings at specific companies, and technical classes for laid-off human resources professionals. Additionally, human resources executives from local corporations would be invited to a special session to introduce them to IT terms. Seminars also would be held for employees of New Hampshire Works, a state-run agency whose career counselors help dislocated workers find jobs.
''We want to give'' HR professionals ''a sense of what IT is all about,'' said McKim. ''We plan to show them what the IT Schoolhouse programs are all about, and talk to them about the challenges IT professionals face when looking for jobs. Right now, they tend to look for key words on a resume, but they don't understand the terms. They don't really know what they mean. We also want the professionals we train to go into interviews and communicate what they know without making HR people's eyes glaze over.''
Program participants will build an application or complete a technical project for a New Hampshire nonprofit agency using ASP.Net, the software tool. That portion of the program will be supported with software and other teaching tools from Microsoft, McKim said.
For some, participation in the Schoolhouse has yielded tangible results.
Dwayne Jeffrey, a software engineer and consultant in southern New Hampshire, said it allowed him to teach others how to upgrade their skills. ''I knew that companies were not doing a lot in-house to help the people they had upgrade their skills,'' said Jeffrey, 63. ''But they were hiring new people with the latest skills. One guy was so desperate to learn newer skills that he went back to the company that laid him off, and begged it to pay him a minimum wage so he could get the training. I thought that was sad.''
Mike Stebbins, 46, of Manchester, found another job after he joined the Schoolhouse. Two years ago, he lost his job as a project manager for a networking company. After receiving an e-mail about the Schoolhouse, he decided to attend a training and networking session. Stebbins bought the required textbooks, and began receiving instruction in ASP.NET, the most recent software tool offered by Microsoft Corp.
Stebbins also met LeeAnn Vermaak, chief technology officer of Infowave Technology, a Manchester start-up that develops supply chain management software for the electronic component industry. Vermaak came to the sessions to learn how to use ASP.NET to improve her own software line. With Stebbins' help, Vermaak, 29, developed the current software system for her firm, which has grown from just two employees and one major client to 10 employees and seven corporate clients.
Today, Stebbins is the chief operating officer of Infowave. He is also a partner, and he manages the engineering department. ''I had been unemployed for over a year,'' recalled Stebbins. ''We were living off savings. I had sent out dozens of resumes, and I got very few interviews. So, I went to the Schoolhouse because it was a way to keep people active. It got them out of the house and got them working together on a project so they didn't get stale. It helped them pick up a new technology, and it was a networking tool.''
Said Vermaak: ''If it were not for the two of us meeting at the Schoolhouse, he would not have a job and I would not have a company. Now, in addition to COO, he is the quality assurance manager for our customers. He makes sure they get what they purchased.''
Diane E. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.