Harlem-Based Program Looks to Close Skills Gap in the Workforce

Harlem-Based Program Looks to Close Skills Gap in the Workforce
Monday, December 10, 2012

By Jeff Mays, DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Crystal Serraty had dreamed of a career as an NYPD officer after she graduated from Monroe College with a criminal justice degree, but that dream was shattered by an accident.

Then she found out that the New York City Housing Authority was offering advanced training in information technology for residents through a Harlem-based nonprofit called Workforce Opportunity Services.

From 300 applicants, Serraty, 25, was one of 30 chosen to participate in specially-designed classes at Columbia University's Fu Engineering School, where she learned about quality assurance for websites. As part of her training, she was placed in a paid internship with Bank Leumi.

"We learned how to make project plans and perform quality assurance," she said.

"They did a lot of soft skills teaching to show us how to deal with the clientele. It felt good to learn so much, and  I'm not putting myself in danger like if I became a cop."

Serraty recently graduated from the program along with 14 others. She received a certificate in computer technology support and quality assurance sponsored by Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and Workforce Opportunity Services.

She has plans to continue her education.

"I think I will gain more experience and climb that ladder," she said.

"I have full faith."

Brian Watson, director of business outreach for Workforce Opportunity Services, said the 8-year-old company has created a template for addressing the so-called "skills gap" where employers, despite the 7.7 percent unemployment rate, say they are having a hard time finding workers equipped with the skills they need to grow their businesses.

"We like to think of it as a solution to the skills-gap problem," he said.

"Our whole idea is to train them to do a specific job and fill a specific role. If you go to college and get a degree in computer science it doesn't necessarily prepare you to do a job."

Some companies have been criticized for being unwilling to spend the funds to give new employees the skills they need to succeed at available jobs. But there are companies willing to step up and pay to train workers, Watson said.

The program reaches into two untapped talent pools — residents living in public housing and military veterans. And rather than considering itself a typical "program," the agency sees itself as a consulting firm that is helping to create solutions for its clients.

"Every single person that comes through our program is underserved but they know they are not getting a handout," Watson said.

"In our model we believe these students are highly capable but untapped. Corporations just don't know this talent pool exists."

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