[Update: A fuller version of this story, running in the print edition of The Seattle Times Nov. 11, 2013, is here.]
Spc. Eric Mendis had studied computer networking back in college but, most recently, was serving in the U.S. Army as a helicopter mechanic and translator.
Coming toward the end of his stint in the military, he was trying to figure out how to get a job working with computers and whether he would have to get a Master’s degree to do so.
Staff Sgt. Adam Critterbart, who had served as a sniper and communications specialist with the U.S. Army “Green Berets,” including in Afghanistan, had decided it was time to get into a safer line of work – and one that allowed him more time at home — given that he and his fiancé were expecting a baby.
He thought he might try getting into computer networking but he wasn’t sure how long the job hunt would take and whether he would be able to support his family in the meantime.
Now, both Mendis and Critterbart — along with about two dozen other military service members who are still on active duty – are taking part in a pilot program sponsored by Microsoft and run in partnership with other organizations, where they’ll receive intensive training designed to make them eligible for jobs as entry-level software testers.
The program, which Microsoft is calling the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, provides a 16-week course, taught by instructors from Saint Martin’s University. At the end of the 16 weeks, graduates will receive certification helpful in obtaining jobs as developers, applications engineers and IT project managers.
Perhaps more importantly to the participants, those who graduate from the course are guaranteed interviews for entry-level software testing positions at Microsoft.
And, at least for this initial pilot class, which runs through Dec. 2 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), all graduating members are guaranteed jobs – either at Microsoft or through Launch Consulting, the veteran-owned tech consulting firm that is administering the program.
“A program like this appearing at this time is the best thing that could’ve happened for my family,” Critterbart said. “Here I was one moment, crossing my fingers to get into networking. And then there I was, getting offered 16 weeks of training while still receiving paychecks, while most people are still searching for a job. I hope there’s a lot more service members that are afforded this type of opportunity.”
This type of program – which reaches service members before they leave the military – is important for a “seamless transition,” said Tim Bomke, an education services specialist with the David L. Stone Education Center at JBLM.
And, he said, it’s becoming increasingly vital with the U.S. military drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the next three years, JBLM alone is expecting to have some 8,000 service members per year making the transition to civilian life, Bomke said. About 40 percent of them will stay in Washington state, he estimated.
“Translating the military skills into the civilian sector is not very straightforward,” Bomke said. “Sometimes the military jobs don’t have a direct counterpart. … We’re trying to get them to think broader.”
Many in the military receive impressive leadership and technical training, said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel.
But “there is a skill gap between what the people are leaving the military with and what they need to get a job in the tech sector.”
The gap includes everything from specific certification that the private sector is looking for to training on the most current skills in software testing or development.
“What we have is a program that is very targeted at the gap between what they already know and what they need to get a job,” Smith said.
Microsoft expects to expand the program to bases in California and Texas next month; it plans to add other states next year.
Information in this post, originally published Nov. 4, 2013, was corrected later that day. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the name of the program. It is called The Microsoft Software & Systems Academy.
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