This feature first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
The Reverend Edgar J. Helms founded Goodwill Industries in 1902 in Boston, Mass., as a mission of his ministry. He trained the unemployed and poor to mend and repair used clothing and household items for distribution to the needy. Out of that humble beginning, Goodwill has grown into a global vocational rehabilitation organization for disabled persons. Last year, Goodwill served more than 26.4 million people and placed more than 318,000 in gainful employment.
A modern twist on the longstanding mission to train people for employment is happening in Grand Rapids, Mich., through Goodwill's Technology Certification Program. The certification program prepares individuals to pass the CompTIA A+ certification exam so that they can work in IT call centers.
"Goodwill's official mission statement is, "Changing lives and communities through the power of work,' " said Bryan Mecklenburg, the technology program manager. "Our goal with this program is to take people who have struggled in their career for reasons related to their disability and give them the opportunity to prove themselves in a technical job. For those who earn their A+ certification and get a job in the Peckham, Inc., IT call center, this is a life changing experience."
The Technology Certification Program came about in April of this year as a joint venture between Goodwill and Peckham, a non-profit vocational rehabilitation organization that provides employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Peckham was awarded a contract to provide IT call center services to the Department of Agriculture through the AbilityOne Commission.
AbilityOne was established in 1938 by Congress to provide employment opportunities to people who were blind by authorizing them to manufacture mops and brooms to sell to the federal government. Since 1971, AbilityOne's mission has expanded to include people with severe disabilities and allows them to provide a wide array of products and services. Peckham was awarded a five-year contract to provide IT call center services to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and planned to construct a call-center in Grand Rapids. The contract required that the call-center techs have a significant disability, and Peckham knew Goodwill would be a dependable partner to help recruit and train such applicants.
A former supervisor recommended Mecklenburg as the "right person" to develop and manage the new program since he has significant experience with computers and teaching IT skills. "I bought my first computer in 1982 — a Commodore Vic-20," he said. "Computers have played a large role in both my personal and professional life ever since."
Having earned certifications in A+, Server+, Green IT+, Project+, IT Fundamentals, and numerous Microsoft specialties, Mecklenburg is able to understand the challenges faced by his students as they study for their official certification.
Coming on board was just the first of many steps for Mecklenburg. "I needed to put together the rest of the pieces," he said. "Initially, I was supposed to limit my staff to one full-time instructor. Over time, we saw this was insufficient staffing, so I brought on a second instructor, through AmeriCorps, and then later I brought on a Coaching Support Specialist."
While there has always been lots of support for the program, starting from scratch required innovative thinking and nimble solutions. Mecklenburg, not the type to wait for others to solve challenges, quickly got things organized, regularly using his personal credit card to gather supplies and equipment. "My credit card and Amazon.com became close friends," he said.
Training and Skills Required
The goal of the certification program is to help individuals dealing with disabilities gain meaningful employment. Unemployment among the disabled is extremely high, approximately 70 percent. One of the factors in the high unemployment is that potential employers often overlook capable individuals with disabilities because they are unsure of what the disability is or how to handle it.
"Their ignorance of the disability leads to uncertainty," said Mecklenburg. "They often wonder if the person will be able to perform the job ... if the person will need any inconvenient or expensive accommodations. Eventually, they decide it would just be easier to hire somebody else."
Mecklenburg is a believer that individuals with disabilities have to be completely prepared for a job before taking it on. "A willing heart and good intentions are not enough," he said. "While some disabilities do require employer accommodation, individuals still have to perform on the job, and this requires training and education."
Students in the certification program deal with any number of mental and physical disabilities. Conditions Mecklenburg has seen include diagnosed depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, autism, Asperger's, ADHD, anxiety, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, partial hearing and/or vision loss, deficits due to automobile and workplace accidents, birth defects, and so forth.
Admittance into the certification program isn't automatic. Applicants must have a significant disability, pass a background check, and take and pass assessment tests in reading comprehension, basic math, reasoning ability, and visual memory. They also need a demonstrable drive to succeed. According to Mecklenburg, the drive to be successful is very important in IT because, "We want a person to be successful. There is no point in putting somebody through our training program if their true passion lies elsewhere."
A Rigorous Program
The certification program is currently housed in a 4,500 square foot corner of a building owned by Peckham. Students bring a variety of backgrounds to the program. Some have IT experience, some have none at all. Most are unemployed, and those who do work are usually in part-time positions with little or no future. In order to meet the criteria of the contract, participants must also be at least 18 years old, but the age of those under Mecklenburg's tutelage varies widely — the oldest graduate to date was 63 at the time of graduation.
Classes meet for four hours, twice a week for 15 weeks, and class sizes are small, generally 10 to 12 students — large enough to encourage class discussions, but still small enough to ensure no one is left behind. The students are immersed in all things needed to pass the A+ certification exam. The classes consist of 50 percent lectures and 50 percent invaluable "hands-on labs." This format enables the students to learn what they need to know, but more importantly lets them see, through the labs, that they can apply their knowledge.
Upon completion of the class, the students sit for two required CompTIA A+ exams. The cost of the exams is paid for from a variety of sources, including grants and donations from other community partners. Students who fail either exam are permitted one free retake.
Although graduates of the program begin their new career in Peckham's call center, an A+ certification qualifies them to investigate many other entry-level IT positions. CompTIA's A+ is the global gold-standard certification that validates understanding of common hardware and software technology in business IT infrastructures. A+ also certifies foundational skills in troubleshooting, networking, and security across a variety of electronic devices.
Joining the Workforce
The Peckham IT positions pay well — compensation includes an hourly wage of $15.32, with an additional $4.01 per hour to be applied to purchasing health benefits. The certification program has already trained and placed 50 certified individuals with Peckham, and plans to add another 50 by the end of 2015.
These jobs aren't charity. They meet an important need in helping the Department of Agriculture bear its IT burdens. Because the Department of Agriculture has projects across the world, Peckham's IT help desk is manned 24 hours a day. Calls for assistance can, and regularly do, come in from Asia, Europe and Africa, at all hours of the day or night.
The students are appreciative of the opportunity to take part in the certification program. Oftentimes they have an interest in IT, but no means of pursuing certification. "For a few years now, I have wanted to be able to take the CompTIA A+ exams. However, I have never had the finances or opportunity to do so," said current student Greg Robertson. "The program with Goodwill and Peckham is a godsend to me. It is a wonderful thing that they are doing for all the people with disabilities."
Mike Miller, a recent program graduate, used to fix friends' computers as a hobby. His family encouraged him to make his hobby his profession, but in order to do so he would need a certification. "Goodwill had this program that would teach me what I needed to know to pass the exams and boy, did they! Now I'm working for a computer call center dealing with highly stressed callers," he said. "Thanks, Goodwill, for helping me reach my goal."
Beneficial for all Parties
Peckham is also pleased with the comprehensive training and preparation of the program's graduates. "We couldn't be happier with our partnership with Goodwill," said Ann Gillmore, Peckham's Resource Development Manager.
"They have been flexible in meeting our IT training needs. Their partnership was key in Peckham bringing these good-paying IT jobs to the Grand Rapids area for people with disabilities," she said. "We are looking forward to growing these jobs in the area and continuing our partnership with Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids."
Peckham's present contract has a duration of five years, and because Goodwill and Peckham both have long and successful track records of working with people who have significant disabilities, all parties are confident the contract will be renewed at the end of five years. "And this relationship will last much longer for all those involved," said Mecklenburg.
A Rewarding Assignment
Because entry requirements to the certification program are high, almost all students who enroll are committed and graduate. "We do have dropouts for any number of unavoidable reasons," said Mecklenburg. "We do our best to work things out, but sometimes things are beyond our control. Clinical depression and anxiety, for example, are real challenges."
Mecklenburg admits that helping students achieve certification is hard work, but he enjoys the reward of seeing a student earn their certification and move on to regular employment. "It's very fulfilling to see them be successful in this program," he said.
Each time a student achieves certification Mecklenburg sends a "Happy E-mail" to all of the students, telling how proud he is of their newly employed peer. He also takes the opportunity to use this congratulatory e-mail to encourage and motivate other students by telling them what traits and skills made the one student successful.
"At first I worried that it was a little corny, but the students really seemed to like it," he said. "They look forward to getting the e-mails."
A poster from the movie Rudy hangs in Mecklenburg's office. The movie tells the story of undersized Rudy Ruetigger, who persisted in following his dream of playing football for Notre Dame University and eventually appeared in a single game at age 27. In the film, Rudy (played by Sean Astin) overcomes his lack of athletic ability and mediocre academic record by relying on his work ethic and internal drive to succeed.
"Sometimes I look at people trying to get into this program and think of Rudy," said Mecklenburg. "Many of the people who try to get into this program would not be allowed to consider a career in IT anyplace else, but we prefer to be more optimistic. Not everyone is successful, but we have some great technicians in the call center right now that entered this program without any noteworthy amount of technical skill. I am so proud of them!"
Mecklenburg has big plans for his fledgling program. His goals for the future include classes for additional certifications such as Network+, Security+, and Microsoft Office Specialist Outlook, as well as a basic security class for beginners so his students will be better protected from hacking and viruses.
He sees many other individuals who would benefit from IT training. And, while he enjoys partnering with Peckham, he would also like to have the freedom to direct his graduates to other companies in the Grand Rapids area.
"I find my work to be very rewarding," said Mecklenburg. "My days may be long and challenging but they are never bad. How many other people can say they never have a bad day at work?"
In a metaphorically appropriate twist of fate, Goodwill's Technology Certification Program is located in the heart of America's historic furniture-manufacturing center. Traditionally known as "Furniture City," Grand Rapids is still home to five of the world's leading office furniture companies.
The word furniture comes from the French word fournir, which means to "equip," and that is exactly what Goodwill and Bryan Mecklenburg are doing — equipping students to hold well-paying IT jobs, and in the process enabling them to provide for themselves and their families while delivering reliable results for their employers.
The Reverend Helms' original goal, to train the unemployed to mend and repair used clothing and household goods, was fairly modest. While he may have imagined a world-wide effort to assist others, there is no way he could have foreseen Goodwill, 113 years later, training disabled people for computer certifications. It seems almost certain he would be quite pleased.