Soft skills, tech jobs: What Philly can learn from Albuquerque’s anti-poverty push

Technical.ly spent the better part of a week reporting on Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Robert Torres/Technical.ly)

Technical.ly spent the better part of a week reporting on Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Robert Torres/Technical.ly)

This story originally appeared on Technical.ly

In Albuquerque, N.M., just as the sun starts to set, the reddish gleam of the Sandia Mountains follows you everywhere you go.

The mountains are an inescapable presence all day long, really, towering over the 558,000 souls who call New Mexico’s largest city home. Look out a random window of most buildings downtown and they’ll likely be staring back at you. Close your eyes at night and their silhouette will greet you in the morning.

The state’s staggering poverty numbers, too, are unavoidable.

It’s evidenced in the downtown area’s homeless population. It’s seen in the rural towns on the hourlong drive to the more posh Santa Fe. It’s in the weary gait of workers who, in a car-first city like Albuquerque, walk home along the shoulder of Route 66.

It’s also in the U.S. Census Bureau data: New Mexico has routinely ranked among the country’s poorest states. With 19.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, only Mississippi is more impoverished.

As part of collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly, we spent the better part of a week last month getting to know the city of Albuquerque, its long-stemming problem with poverty, and the ups and down of local workforce development strategies.

Why Albuquerque? Because despite how modest a 3 percent drop in poverty rates may seem, lessons can be gleaned from their local approach, which has been lauded by the Kellogg Foundation and the Obama White House. Given Philadelphia’s stubborn 25.9 percent poverty rate, and the lackluster results of current efforts, we’d be remiss to turn a blind eye to the lessons other cities might contribute.

It’s almost noon, and Michelle Rodarte, 43, is tearing up a bit as she explains why she had to leave her job at a call center.

“I just resigned,” Rodarte says. “I’ve been in a lot of call centers but they’re a dead end. They’re terrible. I worked for Bank of America, and there you’re not [judged] based on service but on [caller] surveys. If you waited an hour on the phone to speak with me, there’s a consequence.”

Before she could be fired over survey results, she resigned and went back to the place that has helped her find work and training resources before: the New Mexico Workforce Connection, a federally funded local organization that brings together a spread of workforce development programs and nonprofits under one roof in a Northeast Albuquerque office.

That’s where the city’s most enterprising jobseekers often begin their journey.

Soft skills assessment is one of the services available on TalentABQ — a multi-stakeholder effort to get people into jobs including the City of Albuquerque and Santa Fe nonprofit Innovate+Educate — which was recently rebranded as One Albuquerque: Job Source.

Once inside the one-story building, which is peppered with cubicles and small offices, jobseekers are triaged in the front. A case manager assesses their profile and puts their information on a unified system for employers to see. People can log onto computers that use job-board-scouring software, or use phones to cold-call employers. They can enter one of the free WorkKeys hard-skills certification classes or get information on an online soft-skills assessment platform known as Core Score.

That approach, coupled with the organization’s work to de-emphasize the need for four-degree college degrees, is what brought us out here.

Inside his office at NMWC, I ask Jacob Lomas Sanchez, who heads the nonprofit’s Albuquerque office, why he thinks the initiative has been successful, and what a poverty-stricken city like Philadelphia, might want to replicate.

Sanchez depicts a systemic approach to career placement.

Before she could be fired over survey results, she resigned and went back to the place that has helped her find work and training resources before: the New Mexico Workforce Connection, a federally funded local organization that brings together a spread of workforce development programs and nonprofits under one roof in a Northeast Albuquerque office.

That’s where the city’s most enterprising jobseekers often begin their journey.

Soft skills assessment is one of the services available on TalentABQ — a multi-stakeholder effort to get people into jobs including the City of Albuquerque and Santa Fe nonprofit Innovate+Educate — which was recently rebranded as One Albuquerque: Job Source.

Once inside the one-story building, which is peppered with cubicles and small offices, jobseekers are triaged in the front. A case manager assesses their profile and puts their information on a unified system for employers to see. People can log onto computers that use job-board-scouring software, or use phones to cold-call employers. They can enter one of the free WorkKeys hard-skills certification classes or get information on an online soft-skills assessment platform known as Core Score.

That approach, coupled with the organization’s work to de-emphasize the need for four-degree college degrees, is what brought us out here.

Inside his office at NMWC, I askJacob Lomas Sanchez, who heads the nonprofit’s Albuquerque office, why he thinks the initiative has been successful, and what a poverty-stricken city like Philadelphia, might want to replicate.

Sanchez depicts a systemic approach to career placement.

“Right now, Job Source is a platform that puts all the jobs in your region in a geographic location map, where people can then plan transportation and child care around that job,” Sanchez. They can also, he said, get matched through their Core Score assessment results with jobs that suit their strengths and experience.

Though many of the available jobs are in retail, or otherwise consumer-facing (Starbucks, he said, has been a major partner), there are also mid-skill technician jobs, the kind that Albuquerque has by the thousands according to a Brookings Institution report.

Jacob Lomas Sanchez at his desk. (Roberto Torres/Technical.ly)

At a recent meeting with incoming Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller, Lomas Sanchez laid out the impact numbers: TalentABQ had managed to get some 13,000 folks to come through the website and get their soft skills assessed by Core Score, which was built in-house last year by I+E. Some 1,500 attended Job Ready Hire fairs, with an average 35 percent of them walking away with contingent job offers.

Employers, the director said, have been open to looking at Core Score assessment results as a certification of a prospective employee’s true abilities, one that opens the door to those without college degrees.

(NMWC has a Philly relative by way of PA CareerLink Philadelphia, in that both are “proud partners of the AmericanJobCenter Network.” Their offerings, however, differ.)

“They like it because it’s nimble,” said Sanchez. “The assessment doesn’t have to be proctored and it lasts 20 minutes.”

But a key strength of the centralized approach at NMWC is that under the same roof lie many paths to making life-altering career moves.

One place jobseekers can be sent to after triage is TechHire New Mexico.

A few doors down from Lomas Sanchez’ office sits Tawnya Rowland, the program’s director, who’s a bit concerned about not reaching the people she needs to find.

Last year, the initiative — initially a project of the Obama White House — got a watershed $4 million grant to train jobseekers for positions that don’t require a college degree. Through 2020, TechHire is tasked with finding 400 people under the age of 29 in New Mexico and funding their training in IT and tech — from coding bootcamps to IT support training.

“It’s the millennials we’re trying to target,” said Rowland. “A lot of them don’t want a four-year degree, so the focus is on an accelerated learning model.”

The second step is placing graduates into paid internships. The funding lets TechHire share the costs of paying trainees with employers.

What’s one barrier been? In a state with a complex cultural background and a majority-minority demographic, reaching a diverse population remains a challenge. She said there’s been little success in connecting Native American people with the program.

Another hurdle? People don’t believe they’ll really end up getting free training.

“They say it sounds too good to be true and that’s a barrier to be able to get the word out there to enough people,” Roland said. “We instill into our participants that they’ll have to start out somewhere. Give it a year. The credentials are stackable and they’ll learn more about the path they want to take.”

So far, many have been able to find their path. Or at least, they’ve started following it.

In search of lessons for Philadelphia, Mark Muro of Brookings tells Technical.ly the novelty isn’t Albuquerque’s push for soft-skills assessments. After all, de-emphasizing four-year college degrees is becoming more common, especially among certain positions in the growing innovation economy.

What’s more novel, he says, is placing the results of a platform like Core Score at the center of the process.

But if there’s one thing in the Albuquerque experience that Philadelphia would benefit from replicating, Muro says, it’s that the New Mexico city has sought to unify efforts by bringing them under one roof.

“One of the biggest problems with the American training system is its fragmentation and confusingness,” said Muro, a Metropolitan Policy Program Senior Fellow at the D.C.-based think thank. “To the extent they’re expressly taking that on, they are attacking a key problem. It also makes sense to physically co-locate resources, it leads to better information flow and better hand off.”

James Manochio had been working at Walmart for four years, even though his true passion was talking about animation in front of his 30,000 YouTube subscribers. One of his videos, where ranks the top 10 songs on the show Family Guy, has over half a million views.

Then, one day, he heard from a friend about TechHire, and how they’d pay for him to attend a new bootcamp focused on digital media.

“My ideal job is to work in videogames, either as a designer or programmer,” says Manochio, 25, as he shows off his work inside a CNM Ingenuity classroom. This nonprofit, an offshoot of the Central New Mexico Community College, focuses on entrepreneurship and tech training and offers a handful of coding bootcamps.

After the 12-week Digital Media program, grads will be able to step into digital media roles and work on projects that mix the arts with animation and augmented reality.

“For the last five years we’d only done software development,” says Daniel Heron, in charge of tech talent for the program. “But we realized New Mexico has one of the most creative economies in the world, especially with the connection to Santa Fe [a city with a thriving arts community and home to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.]”

The value is that bootcampers work on real projects, instructor Rod Sanchez says. They’ve just completed some augmented reality work for the Albuquerque Zoo.

Still, Heron says, there’s pushback from some companies on hiring bootcamp grads versus the more traditional graduates of computer science programs.

“I don’t really like to compare them,” Heron says. “But the funny thing is that people who are getting four-year degrees are leaving the state. People we incubate here are setting down roots.”

Another CNM Ingenuity grad is 11 Online founder Alonso Indacochea. For him, things have truly gone full circle.

After graduating from the bootcamp, he joined other grads to start a dev shop that now takes on interns from TechHire New Mexico.

Sitting at a conference room inside downtown coworking spot Simms Space, you can tell he’s furiously passionate about growing a local tech community. And, plot twist: an hour into our conversation he reveals that he’s a Temple University grad who cheered, from afar, as the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII. The Temple history major remembers teaching ESL classes in Northeast Philly and living in Northern Liberties when the rent was way, way cheaper.

Then in 2013, he moved to Albuquerque after his wife landed a job at the University of New Mexico.

“What TechHire has allowed us to do is basically get compensated for training people in specific technologies that we use in our project,” Indacochea said. “With a few exceptions, most of our hires have been non-traditional: coming from bootcamps or self-taught. It fit in naturally with what we were doing anyway.”

Alonso Indacochea, a tech founder and Temple grad now living in Albuquerque. (Roberto Torres/Technical.ly)

The harmony in that relationship echoes what the City of Philadelphia is trying to do through its relatively new Tech Industry Partnership: a council of sorts where local companies (first in tech, later in other industries) get a chance to voice their talent needs as the city lays out workforce development strategies.

For all the praise Indacochea offered, there’s also concern in the technologist’s assessment of the program.

“I’ve seen how some of these programs can be abused,” he said. “I just hope that companies are using the funds to that end, really giving people coming from different backgrounds a shot.”

Nancy López lays it all out in plain English: Despite the recent, modest drops in poverty rates, the last 18 years have seen little measurable progress when it comes to stemming poverty in New Mexico.

López, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, is the director and cofounder of UNM’s Institute for Study of “Race” and Social Justice (the quotation marks are there for a reason).

Does she see potential in things like TalentABQ and TechHire New Mexico as a pathway out of poverty? Sure. But it won’t happen overnight.

“Summer youth employment programs and internships are key,” López said. “Work study programs at colleges to connect youth to these spaces. There are also lots of ways this could start happening in middle school.”

If you were looking for hope in that regard, you’d might want to hear out Charles Ashley III. He says his nonprofit, Cultivating Coders, is thinking long term.

Over the blaring pop music at a coffee shop in Northeast Albuquerque, Ashley said the nonprofit, founded in 2015, parachutes coding instructors into rural communities (like Farmington, N.M., and Gallup, N.M.) and Native American territories (like the Navajo Nation) who live there for eight weeks while they deliver tech programming to kids.

“If we get kids coding from the age of 11 to 13, imagine how far along they’re going to be when they graduate high school,” said Ashley. “They’re saying there’s no black or brown kids in tech. Now there will be, because these kids will be exposed.”

Ashley says community partners that can continue training are the first step, which is why they’re working on training school teachers so they can both learn how to code themselves and teach the in-house curriculum.

The poster children for the success of the program? Two young graduates who, during their high-school lunch break, help build apps for the City of Albuquerque.

They make $25 an hour.

Ask Ashley how tech can build an onramp away from poverty for New Mexico’s youth and he’ll tell you it starts by making sure the ramp is fully accessible, by making intentional strides toward that goal.

“We keep trying to do quick fixes, but what we need are culturally inclusive programs,” Ashley says. “The cycle of poverty is generational, and people need to feel they have access to opportunities.”

As Philadelphia grapples with the consequences of its poverty rates, looking at other cities for inspiration might be a good place to start.

“Best practices can be found anywhere,”the Brookings Institution’s Muro said. “They may be applicable in Philly even if they don’t come from a big coastal hot market.”

Edited by Zack Seward.

Technical.ly is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of the reporting at Broke in Philly.

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