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The current economic slowdown aside, employers have long lamented a shortage of skilled tech workers. Tech companies have made pledges, but often little progress, in building diverse workforces. Top universities are able to accept a fraction of applicants to their in-demand computer science programs. Microsoft vet mentoring program

For Kevin Wang, there’s an obvious but often neglected solution to all three of these challenges: community colleges.

These relatively affordable institutions of higher ed have been ramping up their computer science courses, offering multiple four-year degree options. They’re graduating students from wide-ranging racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who often also have years of experience in other fields. Microsoft vet mentoring program Microsoft vet mentoring program

Yet they’re struggling to get hired.

“Our students are overlooked and underserved,” Wang said.

So he’s trying to change that. Wang is the founder of Mentors in Tech (MinT), a Seattle-area program launched three years ago to help college students connect with tech mentoring, internships and recruiting opportunities.

Nearly 500 students have participated in the free program, which is available to students around the country. Currently 190 college students and about 170 experienced tech mentors are involved with MinT.

Jessica Sestak is one of those students. After high school, Sestak thought of pursuing a career in nursing or physical therapy, but she became her household’s primary breadwinner when her mom lost her job. Sestak logged years doing administrative work in logistics and distribution companies.

“I fell into that trap of being stuck in a dead-end job that made my brain start to melt,” she said.

Sestak eventually took the leap, enrolling in Green River College, south of Seattle. After her first Python class she was hooked on coding. But she and her fellow students were anxious about competing with university grads with similar degrees. She worried “that my school would amount to nothing.”

One of her professors connected Sestak with MinT. She was matched with mentors who helped with networking, interview prep, and offered much-needed encouragement. Through MinT, Sestak did capstone-like projects with GitHub CLI and the autocross app Swhoon. The projects, she said, provided essential professional experience, strengthened her confidence and resume, and were a deciding factor in landing an internship at Costco.

After graduating in June, Sestak’s internship became a full-time job at Costco as a software developer.

“MinT gave me the edge that I needed,” she said. “It changed my life.”

Related video: Microsoft’s Push to Become an AI Leader (The Wall Street Journal)

College students like Sesak often follow a different career and education path compared to traditional university enrollees. MinT students include immigrants and single mothers; workers from low-paying, low-status jobs; and people who had never imagined that tech could be a place for them.

A tech job can be financially transformative for the college grads. Washington workers in tech roles have a median salary of $124,653 — an income 147% higher than the state median — according to Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). Despite recent layoffs, the sector is expected to continue growing.

Community colleges are “the last bastion of American economic mobility through higher education,” Wang said.

But that mobility faces roadblocks. While tech companies actively court the graduates of schools like the University of Washington, experts say recruiters and internship offers are absent from most college campuses.

“Our students are largely not coming from a tech background or a massive university with corporate partners, ready to hand them a free interview,” said Steve Balo, North Seattle College’s technical employment program manager.

Research on tech employment prospects for college grads is anecdotal, limited and mixed.

  • recent survey at City University of New York (CUNY), a system of 25 colleges, found that a year after graduation, half of its computer science students did not have a job in their field. Only 10% of CUNY students had paid internships during college.
  • decade-old study from Columbia University’s Teachers College found that hiring managers in Seattle expected information technology grads with two-year degrees to have technical skills and to be workforce oriented, but have a “lack of academic ability, initiative or skill.”
  • MinT last year surveyed its college juniors and seniors who were applying for tech internships and jobs. Out of more than 3,000 applications, only 8% resulted in an interview. But of those who were interviewed, 25% received an internship or job offer. On average, the MinT students needed to submit 50 applications to get hired.

Sestak noted that students need to find an internship or job quickly as technology degrees have a shelf-life due to how fast the field moves.

“There’s only a certain time where that degree will work,” she said.

Washington’s Bellevue College offers more hopeful data from its grads. In 2016, Bellevue became the first community college in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in computer science. The school, located near the headquarters for Amazon and Microsoft, draws from the tech giants for its educators and student advisors. Last year, Bellevue reported that 70% of its computer science graduates were employed in their field.

The MinT strategy

MinT helps college students through a three-pronged approach:

  • The program matches students with volunteer mentors over a school year. All participants receive MinT training in how to engage in the relationship. Mentors receive a curriculum to guide conversations that address a student’s academic career and how to navigate job applications, interviews and recruiting.
  • MinT facilitates capstone projects in which students serve as interns with companies, focusing on a specific task. The project is managed by MinT staff and college faculty, reducing the burden on employers.
  • MinT is encouraging companies to recruit its students, and will provide names of job candidates that match an employer’s needs.

MinT is funded both through grant dollars received by colleges working with the program, and employers who pay fees for capstone projects and for assistance in hiring MinT graduates. The organization has two full-time employees, Wang and Erica Thomas Chen, MinT’s community manager.

MinT is Wang’s second tech-education venture. He previously worked at Microsoft as a program manager, but shifted his focus to a program that he launched in 2009 called Technology Education and Learning Support (TEALS). TEALS supports high school computer science programs, deploying volunteer tech workers to school classrooms and targeting under-served student populations.

After 13 years with the company, Wang left Microsoft and TEALS. But the effort lives on as a Microsoft Philanthropies program. TEALS has served an estimated 95,000 students in the U.S. and British Columbia.

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In 2020, Wang was approached by a consortium of Washington colleges and asked to create a program to help their computer science students.

The timing aligns with the growth in computer education. For more than a decade, various schools have offered four-year “applied” science degrees in IT, robotics, AI and elsewhere. Building on Bellevue’s success, lawmakers two years ago permitted all of Washington’s colleges to offer computer science bachelor’s degrees. North Seattle College launched its program in the fall and others are expected to follow suit.

That means even more demand for volunteer mentors and companies available to host capstone projects for the MinT students.

“They’re not looking for charity,” Wang said. “They just want an opportunity.”

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