Education, Experience and Certification: A Three-Pronged Approach to IT Skills Training in Arizona

by Amy L. Hamblin | Jul 10, 2017

A person repairs a computerReduce. Reuse. Recycle. The Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology (StRUT) program checks all the boxes.

Since 1998, non-profit Arizona StRUT has partnered with schools and businesses to refurbish used computing equipment and donate it to schools with low-income student populations. The program creates outstanding educational opportunities out of used technology, inspires students to pursue IT careers, and financially supports student and teacher CompTIA A+ certification.

“An IT career is like a tripod,” said Tom Mehlert, director of Arizona StRUT. “It has three legs: education, experience and certification. You’re going to have a very lopsided career if you have certifications and a degree, but you don’t have any experience. When we partner with schools, we give students a way to even out their tripods. They are in school, earning certification and gaining experience.”

A Need to Recycle Leads to Education, Experience and Certification

Based on similar programs in Oregon and Silicon Valley, Arizona StRUT began in Mesa, Arizona, when founding sponsors Intel Corporation and Motorola were seeking a way to donate used computers to local schools. The StRUT program became a clearing house for gathering and refurbishing the equipment, procuring funding for software licenses and distributing updated computers to needy schools quickly.

“We take all equipment — working or not, old or new,” Mehlert said. “We promise the public we will get the equipment into the hands of students so they can gain new skills.”

Arizona StRUT begins by wiping or drilling the hard drives of donated equipment to ensure the previous owner’s information is safe. Then, students completely refurbish the equipment from scratch. Arizona StRUT trains more than 800 students in 16 Arizona high schools and community colleges.

We repair computers, but CompTIA A+ really opens the door to the IT world. ... CompTIA A+ is that first step toward being an IT professional.Tom Mehlert, Director of Arizona StRUT

“Students used to tear down and rebuild the same computers over and over,” Mehlert said. “Arizona StRUT now receives donations of different equipment all the time, so schools that partner with us have a wide variety to work with — not just one make and model.”

Arizona StRUT has refurbished and donated more than $500,000 of computing technology — desktops, laptops, servers, LCD monitors, switches and routers — into Title 1 schools in each of the last five years. That’s more than 3,000 computers each year.

In addition, Arizona StRUT sponsors Techie Camps for middle school Title 1 students who live in households without computers. After they learn how computers and software work, students rebuild laptops, which they take home with them.

“Now they have an educational tool at home, and hopefully we’ve enticed them to consider technical careers,” Mehlert said. In 2016, 273 students attended 21 free Techie Camps.

Education That Jumpstarts an IT Career

Rick Spears teaches technology classes at Gilbert High School, a long-time partner with Arizona StRUT. Spears’ StRUT 1 class gives students tangible, hands-on experience with computers; the second-year StRUT 2 class is more academic, with curriculum and practice exams designed to prepare students for CompTIA A+ certification.

Spears estimates his students rebuild 500 computers for Arizona StRUT each year. “Students really gain confidence,” he said. “They can take computers apart, put them back together, understand components, learn how they interact and ultimately understand that their job, as a technician, is to set up a computer so someone can use it and it will work.”

James Moore
These skills proved to be a huge benefit to one of Spears’ former students, James Moore, who graduated from Gilbert High School in 2011. Moore took StRUT classes during his junior and senior years of high school, and he was impressed from day one.

“I had never really looked inside of a computer before, and it was very eye opening,” he said. “Rick Spears had computers cracked open with parts lying about. I was instantly enthralled.”

Moore relished learning about hardware, diagnostics and making computers work so they could be donated to schools that needed them. During his senior year, Moore created a study group with friends as fast-track preparation for CompTIA A+ exams, which the group passed before the end of 2010.

“Rick Spears explained CompTIA A+ and how important it is if you want to have a career in the computer industry,” he said. “I put all my effort into obtaining the certification.” Afterward, the group created study guides to help other students in their StRUT classes.

After Moore graduated from high school, he took a summer job in the Gilbert Public Schools Technology Services department. He was hired to provide manual labor, unboxing new computers.

“I got the job because I had CompTIA A+ certification, which they noticed when I submitted my resumé,” he said. “I was certainly much more advanced than anyone else who applied for the job, and instead of just having me unbox computers, they ended up having me help with things like reimaging new inventory and doing software setup.”

Moore continued working for the school district while attending Chandler-Gilbert Community College. In 2013, he graduated with associate’s degrees in information technology and Cisco networking technology and was offered a full-time position with Gilbert Public Schools as a network assistant. After several promotions, Moore is now a network infrastructure specialist who regularly returns to Gilbert High School to talk to Spears’ current students about Arizona StRUT and CompTIA A+.

“The StRUT program and CompTIA A+ are such amazing opportunities for students,” he said. “I would not have anything I have today without the class and CompTIA A+. It jumpstarted me into a well-paying job, and it enabled me to own a car and a house and live a very nice lifestyle for the age I am. I’m very thankful.”

Hands-On Experience That Begins in High School

Amber Cole was interested in technology from a young age, developing websites with her dad while in elementary school and junior high. Later, however, her interest in web design waned. She discovered StRUT classes in the Gilbert High School course catalog and decided to give them a try.

“It was a lot more technical than I anticipated, but I caught on quickly,” she said. “I found I enjoyed the scientific, mechanical parts of technology more than the art and design I had been doing.”

Cole found the marriage of StRUT’s hands-on lab work and preparation for CompTIA A+ complementary, and she applied what she learned in the StRUT lab to questions on the certification exam.

Amber Cole, at graduation and now

“If I’d only sat and studied or memorized something from a book, I wouldn’t have had the memories of actually fixing something myself,” Cole said. “I don’t know if I would have passed the CompTIA A+ exams on my first try like I did.”

After earning CompTIA A+, Cole decided to pursue an IT degree. Her experience in high school led to easy success at Arizona State University, where she earned a degree in information technology in 2016.

“Both StRUT and CompTIA A+ created a baseline of technical education, which was very impactful in college,” she said. “That knowledge helped me breeze through things. I was ahead of my peers because I had a grasp on those concepts and was ready to build on them.”

Cole is now a database administrator at a real estate company in Tempe, Arizona. She fondly reflects on the rewarding experience she had in high school. “The StRUT program was hands-on, putting things together. Then you deliver a working computer to somebody, and you actually see the impact you have. I had so much fun in StRUT.”

Certification That Motivates Students to Continue in the IT World

I would not have anything I have today without the class and CompTIA A+. It jumpstarted me into a well-paying job, and it enabled me to own a car and a house and live a very nice lifestyle for the age I am.James Moore, Network Infrastructure Specialist, Gilbert Public Schools Technology Services

Arizona StRUT’s dedication to education and experience extends beyond the equipment that is refurbished and donated through its program. The organization also financially supports students who want to earn CompTIA A+ certification.

“CompTIA A+ has always been a cornerstone of computer repair,” Mehlert said, noting that Arizona StRUT also helps teachers earn the certification.

After students pass the first CompTIA A+ exam, Arizona StRUT provides scholarships to pay for the second exam. Approximately 30 students receive scholarships each year. When he visits StRUT classes, Moore encourages students to take advantage of this opportunity.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t hesitate, don’t wait! You have this chance to take the CompTIA A+ exams for free,’” he said. “The generosity of the school and Arizona StRUT is outstanding. They want to do more than just help communities by donating computers, they want to educate students for careers.”

Spears, who pays for his students’ first certification exams with funds from other sources, applauds Arizona StRUT’s commitment to certification.

“As a public school teacher, one of my philosophies has always been: ‘It’s not who can pay, it’s who can play,’” he said. “It’s thrilling to give students the opportunity to certify with zero financial burden. They only have the burden to learn and prepare themselves.”

Spears also views CompTIA A+ as a natural extension of the computer-repair work his students perform in StRUT classes.

“We repair computers, but CompTIA A+ really opens the door to the IT world,” he said. “It says, ‘I’m qualified to get the work done.’ CompTIA A+ is that first step toward being an IT professional.”

Students who have embraced StRUT and CompTIA A+ have found great success. For example, 2016 Gilbert High graduate Michael Ralston earned CompTIA A+ shortly before graduation. That summer, Gilbert Public Schools hired him to sort and repair Chromebooks throughout the district, a seasonal job that turned into full-time employment, thanks to his experience and certification.

“Rather than just being able to say I’ve worked on computers, the certification shows I work effectively, and I know the specifics,” Ralston said. “This certification helped me get a job early in my career.”

At just 19 years old, Ralston works as a technical repair specialist for the school district. He earns a great salary, full benefits and a generous 401(k) — all while attending Chandler-Gilbert Community College at night. When he completes his associate’s degree in information technology in about a year, Ralston will have also saved time and money in college, thanks to his certification. He was able to waive two prerequisite courses after showing the department heads how CompTIA A+ matched the course objectives.

Undeniably, CompTIA certifications are both conceptual and physical confirmations of the core computing skills professionals need for success.

“I use my CompTIA A+ skills daily,” Moore said. “And I still keep my certification card in my wallet! I wouldn’t call it a trophy, but it’s something I’m so proud of — it’s never going to leave my wallet.”

Arizona StRUT Serves Beyond the Classroom

After fulfilling the schools’ equipment needs, Arizona StRUT donates surplus refurbished machines to nonprofit associations, halfway houses and homeless shelters across the state.

“We will find a reuse for it before we scrap it or grind it into bits,” Mehlert said.

If donated electronics can’t be refurbished, Arizona StRUT partners with R2-certified recyclers to ensure the e-waste is recycled properly and does not damage the environment. Revenue from recycling more than 250 tons of this waste each year represents 80 to 90 percent of Arizona StRUT’s operating budget — approximately $150,000 each year.

Arizona StRUT’s next challenge is to continue to refine the process of giving second educational lives to donated mobile devices. The organization is working toward encrypted deletion of smartphones and tablets so they can be given to partner schools to be refurbished, loaded with educational apps and donated to other schools. Of course, utilizing this type of equipment presents broadband and other challenges, but Arizona StRUT will find solutions.

“We will find a way,” Mehlert said. “Ultimately, we want to draw students in and get them engaged in technology.”

Start your IT career with CompTIA A+ today.

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