After being kicked out of his apartment last summer, Tim Burford's bout with homelessness lasted over 120 miles, a journey in the August heat from Beaufort, S.C., to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia. Hitchhiking when he could but walking over half the way, he spent several nights sleeping in ditches and under overpasses.
As a soldier, he says, he had always been taught to do what it takes to complete a task.
In this case, his task was to get a new life.
Officials at the VA immediately referred Burford to a halfway house in Columbia for vets called the Alston-Wilkes Veterans Home. It was from the other vets there that he learned about Fast Forward, a non-profit training center in town that readies people for technology jobs including jobs requiring skill sets certified by CompTIA.
"I was (at Fast Forward) the next day," recalls Burford, 36. "I was there 30 minutes even before they opened the door. And as soon as I walked in, they were helping me 200 percent."
Over the ensuring weeks and months, Burford was one of Fast Forward’s most dedicated clients, pursuing — and eventually completing — a number of certifications for the IT field. A mechanic when he was in the military, Burford thought he could translate his love of how things work into a career with computers.
In January 2011 he was hired by the City of Columbia to work in its court system. His supervisor, Dana Turner, chief administrative judge of the city's municipal court, says that Burford's certifications and high comfort level with technology were key to his being hired. The court system soon will be updating its case management software system, and she is expecting Burford to help with the transition.
"Tim's life has been dramatically changed by Fast Forward," Turner says. "He's sure of himself but in a quiet way. I'm so delighted to have him onboard during our transition to the new system. He has more computer skills than anyone else on my staff."
Meeting the Need
Just outside Fast Forward's Executive Director Dee Albritton's office, a fish tank percolates. It's partly due to these guppies — not to mention a myriad of potted plants, photo collages of clients, and home-made art and crafts — that the center serves as a warm welcome for the diverse group of people who pack the place daily to stretch their computer tech knowledge.
But ambiance is not the only reason why the fish are here.
"The fish tank adds moisture to the air and cuts down on static electricity," says Albritton. Otherwise, she says, people would be shocked continually in the room, which sports close to 100 computers.
If looking for best practices for technology training, look no further than Albritton and her staff of five. For the past 11 years when other non-profit training centers have come and gone, Fast Forward has prospered.
Fast Forward's clients come from a diverse range of groups, from pre-schoolers to military veterans, from employed city workers brushing up the latest version of Microsoft Office to those who have been laid off and are looking for a whole new career.
"Technology is the new literacy," says Albritton. Even jobs that don't require much in the way of technology often involve an online application process that can be a barrier to someone who lacks computer literacy.
Training for Success
Albritton points to some key best practices that have made her agency successful in placing technology workers in jobs:
Best Practice #1: Work closely with employers. Fast Forward meets regularly with employers in the Columbia area to understand what skills and certifications are in highest demand, then she customizes her clients' training in that direction. When one such employer, CSC, was in need of help-desk workers for their call center in Blythewood, Albritton was able to gear training toward developing customer service calls.
Today 20 Fast Forward clients work for the IT giant, two of whom completed CompTIA Network+ and were placed in higher-level employment.
Best Practice #2: Screen for Success. Fast Forward uses a screening process that makes sure the at-risk clients they bring into the program can be successful. A desire to work with computers isn't enough. "IT is about more than knowing how to add RAM to a computer or playing a video game," Albritton attests.
The most successful candidate is a self-starter who also can work in a team setting. Successful candidates have to be willing to work the third shift and make other sacrifices before they can move up the ladder with an employer.
There are showstoppers, such as a candidate having a criminal record. Due to network security issues, a candidate with a record would be rejected by most employers for IT positions. Fast Forward instead redirects such clients to a more appropriate career path. Poor literacy skills also can get in the way of training and success, and Albritton is able to refer those clients as well to literacy programs.
Best Practice # 3: Train Online. If anything was suited to online training, it's IT training. Learning to interact with a computer is essential to most jobs in IT, whether the mode is sales, help-desk or network administration.
Ever since she has deployed online training options, Albritton has seen her agency's job placement rate climb.
"The beauty of online training is if they are struggling with a lesson, they can go back and do it ten times." In-classroom training doesn't always fit with schedules of students, who may be working several part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Online training also can allow for faster turnaround on training, better customization, and easier delivery with lower overhead.
The agency survives on a number of grants and contracts, as well as in-kind donations from companies such as Impact Learning, the exclusive provider of training for CompTIA's Customer Service Excellence program. Impact Learning has provided more than 200 customer service training scholarships to Fast Forward.
"Providing training that results in people getting IT jobs is no easy task, but Fast Forward shows what is possible," says Charles Eaton, executive director of the CompTIA Educational Foundation, which has supported Fast Forward in the past. "Dee's experience in technology training is key to Fast Forward's success, and the CompTIA Educational Foundation has been fortunate to draw on her knowledge as we refine our own programming."
Albritton follows trends closely and constantly shifts Fast Forward's training. This ability to react quickly to the marketplace has kept Fast Forward consistently relevant when other workforce development programs have had to shut their doors.
Trained in theater arts (the technical, stagecraft side of things), Albritton found herself contracting for IBM in the early 1980s, installing and teaching DOS 2.0, Word Star and DisplayWrite. Before long she had her own training center.
Nearly three decades later, the number of people Albritton has trained in hardware and software is in the thousands.
Says Albritton, "Now I see the grandchildren of people I have trained."
Fast Forward's Dee Albritton with training coordinator Amanda Hamilton,
client Tim Burford, and Charles Eaton of the CompTIA Educational Foundation
CompTIA actively promotes philanthropy among its members and applauds the efforts of members who are making a difference. If your company or one you work with is giving back to the community, let us know by emailing Eric Larson, director of external relations for the CompTIA Educational Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The CompTIA Educational Foundation helps populations traditionally under-represented in IT prepare for, secure and be successful in jobs within the IT industry.