When “Life” Becomes a Barrier to Success in Tech, Support Services Can Help
Implementing inclusive, robust support services into training programs can lead to more positive outcomes for learners, like higher employment rates post-completion.
This article is the third article in a series about lessons learned during the Jobs for the Future (JFF) program Rapid IT Training & Employment Initiative (RITEI). Read the first article, "Connecting Learners to Tech Careers: JFF's Rapid IT Training and Employment Initiative", and second article, "RITEI Leverages Apprenticeship Buzz to Create Accessibility for In-Demand Tech Roles."
When training for a career in the competitive and demanding tech industries, passing the certification tests is only half the battle for some learners, especially those who might be working part-time, raising families, or pivoting to tech from an unrelated industry. Workforce training programs aimed at advancing tech inclusivity can’t succeed without access to supportive services—or, as one program staff member put it, a way for them to address “life responsibilities” that can interfere with learner success.
Programs like RITEI aim to provide accessible on-ramps to the technology field and provide access to fundamental industry training, work-based learning, and employment opportunities. However, more attention should be given to the other important piece of the puzzle: vital supportive services that break down common barriers RITEI learners are more likely to face. Nearly 80% of the program’s learners earn low incomes, and many are young adults without postsecondary education and training in the tech field. This means that, besides completing a rigorous certification course, learners must juggle additional life responsibilities, job-search in an entirely new field, and study for the certification exam, often while holding down a full-time job to make ends meet.
Tech is notoriously competitive. When you add systemic barriers, which predominantly affect Black and Latinx learners, and women of all backgrounds, many learners are at risk of falling behind due to extenuating circumstances many tech programs fail to address.
The Missing Puzzle Piece: Supportive Services
Part of the solution? Implementing inclusive, robust support services into the framework for high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs. Studies by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) have also shown that supportive services in job training and educational programs are associated with more positive outcomes for learners, like higher employment rates post-completion.
JFF’s “Purpose-Built to Advance Equity: Expanding Opportunities in Tech for Black Americans” also highlighted this need and several tech innovators who have successfully built holistic, 360-degree approaches to education and training. Sites hoping to launch similar RITEI programs can learn from organizations like EdFarm, /dev/code, and Onramp, which offer supports such as participation stipends, device grants, job search readiness workshops, and peer mentorship programs to give Black learners and workers of all ages opportunities to advance.
Support at Every Touchpoint
The RITEI site at the Metropolitan Community College (MCC) in Omaha, Nebraska, has put this theory into practice since launching the program in early 2022. MCC serves four counties in Nebraska, including learners of all socioeconomic statuses, education levels, and backgrounds. “When MCC was awarded the grant for the Rapid IT and Employment Initiative, MCC knew that our learners would need to be supported, especially those with barriers,” says Lyndsie Gibbs, director of career skills and workforce and RITEI program director at MCC.
“One thing the pandemic taught MCC as an institution was to continue to serve our learners in as many ways as we could,” Gibbs continues. “The focus during that time was to provide learner-centered, holistic services to support impacted learners to upskill and reskill to reenter the workforce. What we learned is that many of the barriers to education and employment were preexistent to the pandemic.”
All but three learners have qualified for financial assistance since MCC began offering the program. To eliminate common blockers and encourage program success, the community college offered the following supportive services to RITEI learners:
- A career coach who works with learners to provide support services (academic, personal, and professional) as well as employment and networking connections during and post-program.
- Financial assistance to tackle “life responsibilities” like small car repairs, rent assistance, utility assistance, gas/transportation assistance, interview attire, and more.
- Workforce support grant for any learner who qualifies (based on household size and income) will receive a $16 per hour grant for “seat time” in class.
- Technology loaner program offering a laptop and a hotspot for the duration of their training program.
- Prior learning credit, which awards the learner up to nine credit hours toward an IT Associate Degree after completing a certain portion of the program.
Lyndsie Gibbs, Director of Career Skills and Workforce, Metropolitan Community College (MCC)
[T]he cost of education and training is a huge barrier for our community. MCC utilizes braided funding to make education and training accessible to everyone in our community.
For sites interested in implementing short-term credentialing programs in the tech field, MCC’s preexisting infrastructure proves they must first focus on building a robust system capable of guiding learners through the program at every touchpoint and throughout the program’s duration.
A Lesson in Funding for Future Iterations of RITEI
We’d be remiss not to acknowledge that the resources needed to create such expansive programs are not equal across all implementation sites. With adequate funding to address “behind-the-scenes” needs, it's easier to be successful in programming. Future iterations of RITEI should prioritize building and budgeting the infrastructure for supportive services. Doing this is no small feat, as programs often must braid multiple streams of funding from federal, state, and philanthropic sources to ensure that participants have access to a robust set of supportive services.
But such a high learner interest in RITEI at MCC thus far suggests the program is addressing an unmet need. MCC’s example indicates that pulling from several sources could help fund these vital wraparound services. “What MCC has learned over the duration of the last three years (and continuing forward) is that the cost of education and training is a huge barrier for our community,” Gibbs says. “MCC utilizes braided funding to make education and training accessible to everyone in our community.”
These strategies are proving to be effective in building the holistic, barrier-breaking supportive service infrastructure for tech programs:
- Prioritize evaluation and research to identify the most pressing barriers in your community. While some barriers are common across all regions and demographics, additional examinations can help picture your typical learners and determine the training programs and supportive services that will best equip them to complete the program and find a job. In the case of MCC, most of its RITEI learners qualified for additional financial assistance, so the institution offered learner-centered, holistic services they knew would benefit their learners most, such as an equipment loaner program and help with rent, transportation, interview attire, and more.
- Partner up. Organizations should proactively seek partnerships with local nonprofit organizations, technical education sites, and workforce development and mentorship programs to expand their reach and meet the needs of a wide range of learners. For example, /dev/color partners with organizations in local communities to promote peer mentoring to support Black IT professionals, boost their sense of belonging, and build social capital within the Black technologist community.
- Supplement with federal funding. Mirroring MCC’s braided funding example, sites can ramp up supportive services using various funding sources. In its Supportive Services in Job Training and Education Review, The Institute for Women’s Policy Research lists several federal funding opportunities that sites can leverage, like the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the largest source of federal funding for job training activities, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training (SNAP E&T).
Once we address the apparent needs alongside the latent ones, we can truly begin to advance accessibility, equity, and inclusivity in tech.
Connect with JFF—and RITEI
Stay connected to this work to learn more about the strides RITEI is making in inclusive tech.
Sign up below to receive research briefs, information on implementation lessons, and invitations to public events and webinars, or to connect with RITEI sites to learn more about how to get involved in local implementations in Denver, Philadelphia, Omaha, Dallas, and San Francisco.
And be sure to follow JFF on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.