Academy readies soldiers for IT careers

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Colorado Springs sees hundreds of soldiers leave the military each month while thousands of IT jobs go unfilled. Now the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy is looking to connect the two.

Microsoft, Fort Carson and the Army Career Skills Program hosted a ribbon-cutting June 2 for the 18-week accelerated IT course, taught through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Catalyst Campus.

Fort Carson Garrison Commander Col. Ronald P. Fitch said the program would boost Colorado Springs’ IT workforce pipeline by giving soldiers a pathway to local tech jobs.

“From Fort Carson alone, we transition 500 soldiers every month. Those soldiers provide a wealth of information, skills and — not least of all — leadership to any organization on the civilian side,” Fitch said.

“Many of them like living here in Colorado Springs already, so I think this program in particular will provide them an opportunity … to work and live here after their military service is complete,” Fitch said after the ceremony.

Twenty-two transitioning service members and two veterans are in the inaugural cohort class at Catalyst Campus, which started May 30.

“The whole goal … is to bridge the gap between the skills that a transitioning service member has and what industry is looking for, with a strong link to employment on the other end,” said Sherry Jenkins, Region 5 Career Skills Program coordinator for the U.S. Army.

“It’s truly important that they have connections to employment opportunities. … The IT industry is in high demand, so this is a perfect fit for our community.”

Thomas Dawkins, Microsoft’s workforce development and education director, said the IT industry has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and Colorado Springs’ wealth of open IT jobs makes it an ideal place for the program.

“With the technical economy continuing to grow, you’re going to need a workforce to support that, and that’s what this is all about,” he said.

“We’ve worked hard with other companies to employ veterans. … That’s key for us. We see so much value in these young men and women. They’re dedicated, they’re committed, they’re smart, they have this ability to problem-solve — and that problem-solving skill is something I bet every company here in Colorado Springs is looking for. …

“We’ve got these resources, we want to get them trained, and we’re going to get them employed.”

Jenkins said MSSA graduates interview with Microsoft or one of its industry partners, and can expect an average starting salary of more than $70,000.

For active duty transitioning service members the course costs about $4,500, including books, materials and certification exam fees, while the cost is slightly higher for veterans and spouses. Students can use the GI Bill or self fund.

This is the first MSSA program to be located off-installation, and is part of  an expansion from six to 14 locations nationwide.

Over the past three years, more than 420 graduates have gone on to work at 200 companies, including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Dell Inc., the Department of Defense and Accenture.

Mayor John Suthers said MSSA is “not only a great benefit to our military members, it’s a great benefit to our community as a whole: Colorado Springs has a great need for individuals with education and training in technology.”

Dawkins said MSSA at Catalyst Campus may need to grow to two concurrent cohorts to keep up with demand.

Fitch said eligible service members will attend MSSA as their place of duty, so they will still receive their military salary during the 18 weeks of classes.

Jenkins confirmed skills programs like MSSA can also save the military money: Transitioning service members who quickly land well-paid civilian jobs don’t need UCX, the unemployment compensation paid to ex-service members while they look for work.

“The goal … is to assist transitioning service members’ transition into civilian careers that have pay that is commensurate with their knowledge, skills and abilities,” Jenkins said in an email.

“This does result in a reduction of UCX that the Army (all service departments, actually) pays to those service members; [these are] funds that can be put back towards Operational Readiness.”

Aaron Glassman, chair of Embry-Riddle’s Department of Management and Technology, said MSSA students are “drinking from the proverbial firehose in what amounts to a … bootcamp-style course.”

Beyond tech skills, he said, MSSA teaches problem-solving and teamwork through real world hands-on experiences.

“You’re not going to be obsolete in 19 weeks,” Glassman said. “You’re going to learn how to learn, and in doing so you’ll remain relevant on the leading edge of technology.”