REDMOND, Wash., July 31, 2001 — Today marks the beginning of the fourth annual conference of Working Connections, a program created by Microsoft and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in 1997 to help disadvantaged individuals prepare for information technology (IT) jobs. Held at Microsoft corporate headquarters , the four-day conference gathers representatives of 60 colleges from across the United States that have received grants under the program, along with seven mentor colleges, to share best practices, assist in curriculum development and create a national network to exchange information.
To date, Microsoft has awarded US$50 million in cash and software grants to 67 community colleges through the Working Connections program. The program is funded by Microsoft Community Affairs and administered by the AACC, a nonprofit organization representing the nations 1,100 community, junior and technical colleges in the U.S. The AACCs more than 10 million students make up almost half of all undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges.
"The conference provides community colleges the opportunity to network in a way that allows them to share best practices along with the content and information needed to continue the program as long as there is a need for IT workers," says Microsoft Community Affairs Director Bruce Brooks.
Meeting a Critical IT Worker Shortage
Working Connections grants are designed to meet an urgent need for skilled IT workers. A report released this year by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) estimated that more than 425,000 positions will go unfilled this year because of a lack of applicants with the requisite technical and non-technical skills. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that new and expanding technologies will account for 80 percent of new U.S. jobs in the next 10 years.
The demand for IT workers is not limited to technology companies. According to the ITAA study, the bulk of this demand comes from businesses and companies not considered technology companies. "Working Connections is not just preparing workers to go into the software or hardware industry. It is for every business that is touched by, and in need of, a better technology workforce," Brooks says.
Creating a Diverse Technology Workforce
Brooks cites another primary motivation for the program. "One clear objective for Microsoft is to try to encourage development of a more diverse technology workforce," he says.
Microsofts belief in the importance of this program was underscored earlier in the summer at the U.S. Department of Labors 21st Century Workforce Summit in Washington, D.C. At the event, attended by President George W. Bush, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer urged the public and private sectors to work together to meet Americas needs for trained IT workers. "Through innovative public-private alliances such as Working Connections, we can help ensure that American workers have the training and skills needed to advance the high-tech industry and keep our economy moving forward," Ballmer said at the summit.
Working Connections Addresses National Need for Diverse, Skilled IT Workers
Microsoft and the AACC began Working Connections not only to help develop a more diverse technology workforce, but also to strengthen the role of community colleges as a central resource for supplying local businesses with skilled IT workers.
"We believe technology training can provide economic opportunities for people who have not had wide exposure to them," Brooks said. "Community colleges are a wonderful location for training, because the populations are diverse in so many ways." Community colleges have many students of color, tend to be more than half female, and have many people already experienced in the workforce coming back for retraining.
Another reason community colleges are ideal locations for workforce training is that they are flexible. "The community college can respond much quicker than a four-year school to evolving workforce needs and to industries experiencing a high growth rate of change," says Gordon Snyder, President of Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Mass., one of seven mentor colleges in the program.
Working Connections grants are used by the community colleges for curriculum development of IT certificate or associate degree programs; workforce development, with a special focus on attracting and graduating people from disadvantaged populations; faculty and staff development, and business and industry outreach. The colleges provide training for a wide variety of IT positions, including network administration, IT support, Web design and animation, data entry and programming.
An important component of the program is to help community colleges become central community resources for IT workforce training by strengthening connections to local businesses. "Sometimes theres a disconnect between whats going on in the academic sphere and whats going on in the business sphere in terms of what is actually needed," says Brooks. "This program requires community colleges to reach out to the local business community, and these connections are an important part of determining whether a college would receive grant funding."
A Broad Program with Demonstrated Success
In its four years of operation. Working Connections has demonstrated success in each of its program areas. More than 1,600 students and 126 faculty members have been trained in various basic and advanced technology applications. Some 140 new or revised technology courses have been added, as well as 15 new or revised certificate programs. In addition, 128 business councils have been formed, providing local community funding for the continuation and expansion of the program.
"Its been an incredible process to see the number of courses that the schools have put together, and the amount of change and the number of lives that the program has directly affected.," says Snyder.
Jean Floten, president of Bellevue Community College in Bellevue, Wash., another mentor college, is very pleased at the programs focus on faculty training. One of the thorniest issues that community colleges face is the ability to attract and retain qualified teaching faculty. "Microsoft has helped us to invest in the faculty side of the learning equation," Floten says. "Our research has shown that one of the motivators that helps keep our faculty with us is if they feel they have opportunities to stay current in their field." Microsoft really assisted us in fueling that pipeline through Working Connections. "