Technology

A Work-Study Program for U.S. Tech Students


Low-income kids can get experience and a degree in six years, with no debt and a job at the end, thanks to Workforce Outsource Services

Many within techdom complain about U.S. companies that use cheap, offshore labor or guest foreign workers in place of domestic employees. Few are doing much about it. A noteworthy exception is Arthur Langer. His New York nonprofit organization, Workforce Outsource Services, is trying to provide alternatives to foreign tech workers, including those on H-1B visas, by granting scholarships to low-income students and placing them in multiyear work-study programs in companies while they work toward undergraduate degrees. "We have an incredible source of talent in this country that can work for competitive prices," says Langer, a technology consultant and professor at Columbia University. "You don't have to go to India for labor." The organization began as an academic project nine years ago, became a company in 2005, and is now expanding in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. So far, 120 students have graduated, and a further 65 are enrolled. Langer ultimately hopes to put thousands of youngsters through the program. He believes it's at a turning point. "We have proved it can work, and we're scaling up now," he says. Langer, an expert in technology management, began the project after seeing many young people from poor communities go to college but fail to complete degree programs. The reason: They are under intense pressure to get into the workforce and earn money, or they are averse to piling up loan debt without the certainty that they will get good jobs after graduation. So he founded Workforce Outsource Services to help students earn degrees without financial strain. Motivated and Disciplined

Here's how the service works: Young people are invited to a six-week orientation program where they meet in a group with Workforce Outsourcing Services trainers once a week. From that group the most motivated and disciplined candidates are selected. They participate in an intensive IT training program at a university and then begin working part time for corporations while they go to school part time and finish their undergraduate degrees. "The goal is for people to graduate in six years with a degree, technology certification, no debt, and a job," Langer says. Valeria Rodriguez, an 18-year-old from Somerset, N.J., learned about the program a year ago when she was in high school. "It was too perfect," she says. She is now participating in a certification program at Rutgers University and working at Galaxy Systems, a provider of IT consulting and other services in Somerset. "It's hard today for college graduates to get a job," she says. "I won't have debt when I finish college, and I'll have plenty of work experience." Participating companies make donations to help cover operating costs and tuition payments, plus pay salaries to the students. They include Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), MedcoHealth Solutions (MHS), and Prudential Financial (PRU). Nonprofit organizations, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art, are allowed to participate without making donations. The program works well for employers, says Steve Peltzman, MOMA's chief information officer. He initially hired one of Langer's students for the museum's tech help desk. That went so well that he now uses other students to monitor the data center, which houses computing for the museum. One person with higher-level skills managed a software programming project. "You get all of the monetary benefits of offshoring and none of the negatives," Peltzman says. "And you're doing social good." Langer's program is still relatively small, but if it grows as rapidly as he hopes, it could begin to do a whole lot of social good. He's working on that—right now negotiating with people at the University of Missouri in an effort to get the program going in St. Louis. Says Langer: "We have to show the country this can work."

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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