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North Carolina program offers tuition-free training to increase access and opportunities in the tech industry

Group photo - Per Scholas.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
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Per Scholas’ IT support course at 129 West Trade St. on Dec. 6, 2022.

Per Scholas North Carolina launched in 2020 to train mostly people of color for a career in the tech industry. The nonprofit offers free courses that include cybersecurity, and software engineering online and an information technology support class in person at its Charlotte campus.

Per Scholas North Carolina is one of many campuses across the U.S. that offers training to build greater access and equity in the tech industry. In the uptown location, KJ Bethea-Simon was seated in the front row of about a dozen students in an IT support class.

Before pursuing a career in tech, Simon, who identifies as African American and Hispanic, spent over 10 years working in real estate. She said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of technology, especially during lockdowns.

 “Being told to stay at home and only limited access out, which turned the world around for just about everyone that I know,” Simon said. “Therefore, being confined to your home made technology, which was already… pretty much taking over our lives, made it extremely essential.”

KJ Bethea-Simon - Per Scholas.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
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WFAE
KJ Bethea-Simon is a student at Per Scholas in uptown Charlotte. Dec. 6, 2022.

Mike Terrell is the managing director of Per Scholas North Carolina. He said the program is designed for people who face barriers breaking into the industry.

 “Folks who are unemployed or underemployed or demographics that have been historically excluded from the tech field. So, people of color, women specifically,” Terrell said.

More than 80% of Per Scholas’ students identify as people of color, and one in three members identify as women, according to the program's website. The IT support course exposes participants to various technical requirements.

“They’ll go over hardware; they’ll go over different types of software and operating systems and storage and all sorts of things that they’ll encounter when they get into their first position as a technician,” Terrell said.

A Per Scholas course is like a full-time job. Participants are required to commit to 40 hours of training and an additional 20 hours of study time a week for about three months, depending on the course. Rock Hill, South Carolina, resident Comiel Harrison is a class graduate. She commuted daily for the program.

“I got on the train, and I went all the way up to uptown Charlotte and walked three and a half blocks to Per Scholas,” Harrison said. “Every day, rain, sleet, snow, every day because that was my end goal to get this certification.”

Following her training, she was unemployed briefly. But several job interviews last month led to a tech position at Wells Fargo, and she is expected to start in the new year. Harrison said the professional development component of the program helped her. The course prepares participants for job interviews and handling imposter syndrome.

“I had to learn my sixty-second speech or my elevator pitch. And the elevator pitch means ‘tell me about yourself when you get into a job interview?’” Harrison said. “So, we had to go through a process, psychological process … about how to handle that once you get that IT job.”

Comiel Harrisoon - Per Scholas.jpeg
Elvis Menayese
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Comiel Harrison of Rock Hill, S.C., shared her experience in the program with new Per Scholas learners.

Dr. Robert Ceglie is an associate professor teaching STEM-related courses at the Queens University of Charlotte. He said one reason behind the lack of diversity in the STEM field is related to the environment created.

“Traditionally, they have been fields that have been very demanding but very unwelcoming to people that don’t look like those who are teaching the classes,” Ceglie said. “So that sort of created a historical situation where women and many underrepresented groups have just not felt comfortable and then not succeeded in those classes, particularly early college classes which tend to weed out students.”

Ceglie said one way to potentially have more underserved groups and women in the industry is to focus on what can be done at high school and early college to create environments that don’t disenfranchise certain groups.

Since the launch of Per Scholas North Carolina, nearly 280 students have been trained in IT support, cybersecurity and java development. Graduates of the program have found various IT jobs for companies like Lowe’s, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. An application for the next in-person IT support course is due March 6, 2023 and starts on March 20. Participants must be 18 years or older to enroll.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.