Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Plinio Ayala, President and CEO of Per Scholas
Per Scholas originated as a way to increase access to technology within low-income communities. How did the organization transform into directly moving individuals out of poverty?
When we were originally conceived, the idea was to deal specifically with the issue of the digital divide in these communities. Our approach was to refurbish end-of-life computers and get them back in the hands of people who didn’t have access to that technology. As we were doing that we realized that we needed to build a workforce. We trained a handful of people to rebuild these computers—and they left us, shortly after being hired. The primary reason was now they had a skill that was very marketable and they could earn better wages.
We realized then that while there was an opportunity to be able to get people connected to technology, to the access of computers, there was a further opportunity to train a workforce in IT and put these workers in a position to be able to pursue and successfully acquire a career in technology that led to significant wages. So over time the issue of the digital divide became less of a priority for the mission and the workforce development piece replaced it. We’ve become mostly a workforce development program, really believing that one of the best strategies to alleviate poverty in the communities we serve is to get people the skills they need to be able to enter and succeed in IT careers.
At Per Scholas, relationships are critical to the success your program, including those you build with both community members and with businesses. What has been the outcome of these strong relationships and how can other organizations shift away from working in silos to tackle the system-wide challenge of poverty?
We believe that effective workforce development is really driven by the understanding of the business community, so we view our primary customers being the businesses we’re serving. We spend a lot of time speaking to employers to understand where their pain points are in hiring. Then we use that information to build training programs so we can train people for the skills that are in demand right now in IT. We do that in a number of ways but certainly having relationships with key employers to help inform our curriculum is incredibly important. It keeps the program incredibly relevant.
To your question about community partners, I think we learned early on that we very much adopt and believe in a “stay in your lane” philosophy. What we do well is train. We rely on other partners to provide critical support services that allow our students to complete their training program and move into employment. We’re not experts in child care, housing, combating domestic violence, all of those issues that, in some cases, our students face. We rely on strong partnerships with other not-for-profits to be able to provide those services. That piece is incredibly critical to our success and we can only realize our success through our partnerships.
I think groups often protect their own organizations and their own agenda. But the problem is so massive that it’s only through collaboration that we can move the needle. Recognizing where you are good and staying in that lane while realizing that you can augment your work by partnering with other organizations in a much more cohesive and strategic way allows the elimination of those silos. The silo’ed approach doesn’t help anyone—or it only helps a finite amount of people that are directly served by a particular organization. I think there is the ability to increase reach and impact when organizations are much more ready to collaborate in a meaningful way.
The services you provide at Per Scholas could help so many individuals across the country. What are your plans for scaling this program and what can communities do to make themselves a desirable partner?
The problem around access to skills that lead to successful careers in IT is a huge problem that exists across the country. We have spoken to a number of employers in many cities and the theme is almost always the same: there’s a real skills gap between what they are seeking in the employer base and what is found in the local talent. An organization like Per Scholas can help bridge that gap by identifying talented individuals in what have historically been disconnected communities, providing them enough training and support, and moving them into these jobs that employers are absolutely desperate to fill.
We embarked on a replication strategy several years ago, we are now in a number of cities: Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Silver Spring, Maryland; Dallas, Texas; and we hope to be in Atlanta before the end of the year. There are a number of things we hope to identify in a particular community, certainly an understanding of where the jobs are and whether we can help fill or bridge whatever skills or IT gap exists in that community, a good understanding of partners, including the not-for-profit partners that can help support our students while they are in training, support from the corporate community and philanthropy to be able to support this program long term—and that’s important, there needs to be local buy-in and recognition that this program can be additive to the community. It’s only through that local support that the program becomes sustainable. So that’s a big piece in what we look for in a community partner.
Lastly, it’s understanding if we can be additive. If we’re being duplicative and our efforts and training already exist in a community and there are others who are doing it well, it doesn’t make sense for us to be there. But if we can help be part of a solution that’s helping to bridge people into the world of work and IT-training as an area of need for a particular city, we would love to be a part of that team to be able to bring that solution to the city.
You all have profiled real individuals who have been able to change the course of their life a result of completing the Per Scholas training. How can people who are inspired by your organization get involved and support you?
There are number of ways, certainly our curriculum has been built with areas of insertion for corporate leaders and volunteers that are willing to take their time to be able to help. There’s mock interviews, resume review, coming in and doing a life skills course on critical thinking or negotiation, that’s all valued by our staff and students when it comes from corporate volunteers that have an expertise in a particular area and can share it. So from a number of engagement points, volunteering is certainly a way to help. Providing an internship to one of our graduates or considering one of our students for possible employment within their corporation is certainly a second way that individuals can engage. Lastly, which is often necessary for not-for-profits, is support financially whichever way a person can. It certainly allows us to continue doing the work that we’re doing.
One thing I would want to add is that as the economy continues to improve and we keep hearing about the large numbers of job creation or reductions in employment, we must be mindful that the economic recovery has not hit everyone. There are many communities across this country that are still desperate and need a lot of help, individuals that are totally disconnected from this recovery in ways that we haven’t seen in many, many years. We need to be very mindful that programs like Per Scholas that are trying to reconnect these individuals into the workforce are necessary to continue that recovery and it is our responsibility as citizens of this country to make sure that we can include as many individuals into this new economic situation. We need to be mindful that the boat isn’t floating for everybody and we need to make sure that it does for as many people as we can.