At WOS, rewriting the code on workforce development

Screening candidates: PSEG needed coders on Long Island and elsewhere -- so NYC nonprofit Workforce Opportunity Services stepped in, qualifying three-dozen college graduates for good-paying jobs.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

In-demand coding skills may prove to be just the ticket for three dozen under-employed college graduates, thanks to a socially minded nonprofit and a leading regional utility.

New York City-based Workforce Opportunity Services – a registered 501(c)3 aiming to diversify and bolster regional workforces by preparing underserved communities to fill specific industrial gaps – has created a 15-week coding course in collaboration with PSEG, a sort of “last mile” effort designed to make recent college grads in different fields extra-employable.

Program participants will ultimately fill 37 positions at PSEG offices in New Jersey and on Long Island, with the first cohorts already on the job for PSEG-Long Island in Bethpage and Hicksville.

The big picture with this particular training program – Workforce Opportunity Service’s largest single program since the nonprofit launched in 2005, according to founder and Chairman Arthur Langer – is the rapid evolution of technology development, a big concern for employers who must train current and future workforces.

Arthur Langer: Thinking big.

Enter Workforce Opportunity Services, which bridges the gap between employers and professional-education opportunities in myriad cities and industries – and already counts JetBlue Airways Corp., Prudential Financial and other major-league corporations among its satisfied collaborators.

Working mostly with military veterans and recent high school graduates, the NYC-based nonprofit provides customizable solutions that meet specific industrial and societal needs. It’s an ambitious quest – and it was always meant to be, according to Langer, who wasn’t about to settle for small-time.

“It’s one thing to change one person’s life, two people’s lives, 10, 20,” Langer said in a 2014 TEDx Talk. “But to do something that is systemic, to actually change the course of the way things were going to be, that was my challenge.

“I wanted to allow young adults a chance to go to college,” added Langer, a Columbia University professor and director of the university’s Center for Technology Management. “I wanted to create a systemic solution where we put thousands of people in school and allowed them to get jobs.”

To do it, he would network those underserved populations with social organizations, corporations and universities, all working together – region by region – to address specific industrial shortfalls. A certificate program through Columbia’s engineering school and early support from Prudential got the ball rolling, and quickly the 2005 startup built what Langer called “a robust support structure.”

Almost 15 years later, Workforce Opportunity Services has connected about 5,000 participants with good-paying jobs. That includes the nearly 40 participants of its new PSEG-backed coding program, which officially launched in July.

Sarthak Thakur: Real-world opportunity.

Among them: 22-year-old SUNY College at Old Westbury graduate Sarthak Thakur, who struggled to find work, despite his freshly minted computer science degree. Even entry-level jobs required skills and experiences he didn’t have, according to the Bethpage resident, who found exactly the boost he needed to clear that hurdle in the Workforce Opportunity Services/PSEG collaboration.

“I was really excited about it,” Thakur said. “This was a chance to get real-world, hands-on experience and work for a top-tier company.”

Also excited was PSEG, which rides a frighteningly fine line in a national economy where 3.4 million skilled technical positions will be open and waiting by 2021, according to the National Science Board, governing body of the National Science Foundation.

“A focus on diversity and inclusion permeates all aspects of our business and is key to attract and retain high-performing talent,” Joseph Santamaria, PSEG’s chief information and digital officer, said in a statement. “Working with partners like [Workforce Opportunity Services] to support our talent-acquisition needs while supporting underserved individuals is a true win-win.”

Through the PSEG program, Workforce Opportunity Services not only covers the tuition of the coding classes – valued at $15,000 per student, including instruction from the App Academy and the New Jersey Institute of Technology – but even pays participants a weekly stipend to “clear the path” and make it easier for them to get where they’re going. The nonprofit is even known to spring for daycare, transportation and other expenses.

It’s not always easy, according to Langer, who toiled through 18 years of part-time college to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD (Education Leadership, Columbia, 1998). But “that’s why nobody else does it.”

And it’s also how Workforce Opportunity Services, with help from those industrial and academic partners, has built its solid foundation, allowing it to break new ground with its PSEG partnership.

“PSEG’s commitment to hiring an additional 37 individuals from our programs showcases our ability to meet the talent demands of the marketplace, especially in a time where companies are starved for talent,” Langer added. “We’re thrilled to be deepening our partnership with PSEG and look forward to witnessing the transformation of the individuals selected for the program.”