Enlisting in IT: Free certifications help vets fight unemployment

Mike Adams' story is a good-news one. After 20 years in the U.S. Navy, he was forced to retire in September 2006 after a herniated disk and knee problems left him unable to lift heavy objects or climb steps. Having served in the military since he was 17 -- and suddenly dropping from an annual salary of $80,000 to a small retirement check -- Adams was grappling with how to transition into a civilian career.

"I had to start all over again," he says. With a young son (and now a second child) and a wife who works as a schoolteacher, "retirement was not high on my list of things to do," he explains.

Through a friend, he obtained a part-time position at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., as a network engineer, since he had some basic knowledge of computers. But as a machinist's mate in the Navy, Adams knew more about hydraulics than hard drives, so he began researching formal education opportunities to increase his standing in the IT profession. He read about a program run by the Computing Technology Industry Association's CompTIA Educational Foundation, whose mission is to provide career opportunities for populations historically underrepresented in IT, including veterans, at-risk youth, women, minorities and individuals with disabilities. The program, called Creating Futures, enables participants to prepare for and obtain four IT certifications free of charge.

The CompTIA Educational Foundation has launched IT careers for more than 223 military veterans in the past three years, according to the foundation's president, John Venator. It hopes to serve more than 600 this year, thanks to a $210,000 grant from Major League Baseball and the McCormick Foundation. As of March, 110 people had enrolled in this year's Creating Futures program; half were veterans, and one-third of the vets had service-related disabilities.

Beating the Odds

Adams obtained CompTIA's A+ certification in a month's time and was offered a full-time position at the high school in March 2007, just four weeks later. He's now working on CompTIA's Server+ certification and plans to study for the organization's Network+ certification. He's able to study online, which allows him to take a self-paced approach that fits in well with his lifestyle, he says, especially since his pain medication often interrupts his sleep. "If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can just sign on," he says.

Unfortunately, success stories like Adams' aren't universal among the 300,000 military personnel who complete their active duty every year and try to find civilian jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 11.2% among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan age 18 and older, compared with a rate of 8.8% for nonveterans in the same age group. Some reports say soldiers are re-enlisting specifically because of the poor civilian job market.

The lesson for military personnel is to "make sure you have a marketable skill," says Joyce Gioia, a management consultant. Creating Futures is certainly trying to help them do that, but the question is whether that battle can be won, especially during the current economic downturn.

Venator acknowledges that the program is already "working against the odds" in its commitment to helping people traditionally underrepresented in IT. Of all the people who enroll in the program, about 40% go on to earn a certification, and Venator is working to raise that number. One way is through a newly added prescreening step in which CompTIA attempts to determine whether an individual has the right background, motivation and computer skills to obtain a certification. The foundation also provides free computer literacy courses for veterans who don't have a computer background.

Venator says Creating Futures is different from other training programs in that it offers a complete package of services. In addition to prescreenings, the program includes mentoring and allows participants to take practice tests before the actual certification exams.

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