Per Scholas may be the only job training program ever to be name-checked in The New York Times. It’s one of the longest running and most studied in the IT sector. Along with programs like Year Up and Project Quest, it’s part of a class of nonprofits—sectoral training programs—that are getting more attention of late.
By zeroing in on a particular industry and its skill needs, they’ve shown to be more effective than many other workforce programs that provide more general education and training.
But, as Per Scholas looks to expand significantly in the next three years, it’s facing down some perennially tough questions:
- What does it mean to be industry-aligned in a sector like tech where the half-life of skills feels like a nanosecond?
- And for working learners, when does a “better” job also meet the bar for a “good” one?
“How do we keep the curriculum fresh and hold ourselves accountable to employers,” says Plinio Ayala, president and CEO. “It sounds intuitive, but I don’t think people get that you need to design for the customer.”
Increasingly, what it’s finding is that the first pass at training isn’t enough. As Per Scholas dug into its data and talked with alumni over the past couple years, staff noticed that while some graduates continued to get promotions and increasingly higher-paying roles, others got a new job and an initial wage bump and then plateaued.
“We’re realizing we need to stay with them for two to three years,” Ayala says.
What’s happening: Per Scholas is investing in new upskilling programs for its alumni in areas like cloud computing, network management, and project management. So far this year, 884 alumni have participated in the various training programs, with most drawn from the 6,500 completers it had in the past two years.
The goal in the next few years is to have 2,500 alumni complete next-level training and secure “thriving” roles, defined as pay of at least 20% above MIT’s living wage threshold for a given region, Ayala says. In a place like Dallas, that would be about $44K a year for a single adult with no children or almost $89K for a single parent.
Big idea: There’s a growing recognition in workforce training that upwardly-mobile career paths, not just good first jobs, matter. For unemployed adults or the working poor, the first step-up job after training may not get them to a sustainable income and path. The second and third jobs matter.
But a lot of training programs—and outcomes metrics—stop at job one.
A step back: This idea of a career-path job is particularly challenging in tech. There is a longstanding and still unsettled debate about what even constitutes a “good” tech job. Is it enough to be preparing people to work in IT and computer support—a job pool that’s vulnerable to further offshoring and automation—or should everybody be shooting for coding and cyber jobs?
What is a coding job, anyway? A DevOps assistant, CMS administrator, junior web developer, or only a full-blown software engineer? Does this change with the increasing use of AI copilots?
These questions are especially complicated when your goal is to serve vulnerable youth and working adults, often with children, who are time-strapped and need a better job as soon as possible. The jobs that most Per Scholas graduates get aren’t the six-figure, plus stock options, tech jobs of popular imagination.
But they do provide measurable gains. In a robust longitudinal study, researchers found that two years out, Per Scholas graduates were much more likely to be employed in tech than similar adults in a control group.
- They also had average earnings that were $3,746 higher, though that meant graduates were still only earning $18,271 at that time.
- By year seven, those earnings had grown to $40,494 on average, but the control group’s earnings also grew substantially to $35,651—for a gap of $4,844.
In other words, the relative wage premium for the training persisted, but had shrunk from 26% to 14% over time. One of the ideas with alumni upskilling is to keep those premiums large and growing.
The details: In a pilot, Per Scholas invested about $1K per person for training, and alumni saw an average $13K increase in salary, Ayala says. But the outcomes were uneven, so the organization is investing more in career and networking support that will bring the program cost up to $1,600 per person as they expand to more people. The hope is to see the same level of salary increase.
Jay Diereg, senior vice president of learner and alumni success at Per Scholas, says one of the primary investments is in staff to build closer relationships with employers. “We’re focused on connecting alumni-training graduates into employer networks,” he says.
Esther Adelman, a 2022 graduate of Per Scholas’ IT Support program, trained for a Microsoft Azure certification through the alumni program. She’s also looking to complete a Google certificate in project management.
“I gave myself a personal goal of study for six months, rest for six months, then study again,” says Adelman.
She works full-time as a senior application support specialist with Cardinal Health, and also has a young daughter. She’s already been given more responsibility since she started her job—working directly with representatives at client companies, not just end users, to troubleshoot issues.
Her goal with additional training is to keep advancing in her current role, and perhaps to eventually move into a project or product manager role.
“As an IT professional, you always have to keep learning,” she says. “You can’t say, I’m just going to do this and that’s it.”
Editor’s note: Read a related Q&A with Per Scholas president and CEO Plinio Ayala here.