Denver Nonprofit Prepares Underserved Youth for Tech Careers

by Matthew Stern | Jan 04, 2017

Jose Rivera and four of his teachers stand in front of a display of college banners.During his free period, Hinkley High School senior Jose Rivera was busy preparing for a full day of classes and, simultaneously, for the next step in his education. Almost certain that he would attend the University of Colorado Boulder in the coming year, he hopes to pursue a degree in either computer science or in a field that combines his IT skills with his favorite topics of mathematics and science.

The world – both in terms of what subject he will study and what he will do professionally – is wide open for Rivera. And thanks to his tech-savviness and ingenuity, enhanced with help from CompTIA and local nonprofit IT education outfit KidsTek, he will be ahead of the game, no matter what path he settles on. That's because during his junior year of high school, Rivera passed the CompTIA Network+ exam.

“There's so many things you can do, obviously,” Rivera said. “Once I get [to college], I'll see what sparks my interest.”

Rivera loved computers from an early age. At 7 years old, he began playing with his older sister’s computer. Like so many tech-minded young people, he eventually moved from playing games to tinkering with the operating system. When he hit middle school, he was already thinking about potential computer-related careers. And by the time he was in high school, taking programming and computer science courses, he was ready for something more advanced. That's where KidsTek came in, setting him on the road to obtaining a CompTIA certification at an impressively young age.

Preparing Underserved Youth for IT Careers

Tech is a smart thing to put your eye on when it comes to thinking about what kind of careers to choose, whether going into hard IT or an ancillary industry that supports tech.KidsTek Program Director Andrew Bissland 

KidsTek helps students in underserved school districts build their technology skills. In Denver-area high schools that have 70 percent or more students receiving free or reduced lunch, KidsTek brings in industry-expert instructors to teach elective courses on technology that often involve certification. Andrew Bissland, program director at KidsTek, indicated that these programs give students in underserved schools a greater chance of success in Denver's booming tech job market.

“Tech will continue to be an even hotter industry to get into,” Bissland said. “We see it as our mission to bring the underserved kids into the fold and make it more affordable and help out their quality of life.”

During Rivera's junior year, the school had expressed an interest in teaching a computer networking course through KidsTek as a follow-up to an earlier, more entry-level class. Bissland said that KidsTek’s curriculum often meets the standards of community college courses so high school students can earn college credit. Thus, the networking class was born, and as its capstone, students had the opportunity to take the CompTIA Network+ exam.

At the high school level, getting an industry-level certification like Network+ is no easy task. But Rivera studied hard the spring of his junior year, with the help of a mentor – a senior computer whiz whom he looked up to. Rivera took and passed the exam and was awarded not just a CompTIA certification, but a laptop from KidsTek.

“We're trying to get more hardware out into the community as well,” Bissland said. “So, when high school students pass our class, they earn a laptop.”

Certification Benefits Beyond a Career Path

These days, with his laptop in hand and a CompTIA Network+ certification to his name, Rivera has a head start both in terms of his education and the job market. Having enjoyed the expertise-building experience of the Network+ exam, he's interested in pursuing CompTIA Security+ on his own.

But it's not just the professional credentialing he's benefitted from. The skills he built with CompTIA Network+ have come in handy in his day-to-day life. Instead of asking his older sister to configure the network settings on his new laptop, this time he did it himself. And he has become a go-to expert for his friends when they need help with network configurations on the school laptops they borrowed.

“It's really cool how I can apply the concepts from that class to fix some of my friends' problems,” Rivera said.

As he continues down his educational path and into his professional life, his tech skills and certification will both serve him well. This is true whether he goes into a pure IT career or something adjacent to it. As Bissland pointed out, in Denver, as in the world at large, tech touches everything these days – and those who are certified always shine to potential employers.

“A lot of Silicon Valley companies have a strong presence here,” Bissland said. “We are always telling the kids that, as you can see, everything is becoming very techy. Tech is a smart thing to put your eye on when it comes to thinking about what kind of careers to choose, whether going into hard IT or an ancillary industry that supports tech. Even if they don't go into IT per se, having a cert on the resume is just another bullet point that makes them more hirable.”

Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries. 

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