Ahmed Omar, 23, a Somali immigrant, was looking to earn a GED and get a job a few years ago.
Peng Her, 34, a high school graduate from St. Paul, was a security guard, making $21 an hour after 10 years, but concerned it wasn’t the career that would support his family.
Linus Onuoha, 28, a college graduate, was considering other work than his job as a hotel concierge.
Today, the three are second-year employees with career plans at Atomic Data, the data-center manager and IT-support company.
The three graduated from a 20-week technology-training program at Summit Academy of north Minneapolis. It trains students, who are disproportionately minority, for entry-level careers in technology, building trades and health care for jobs that start at $15 per hour plus benefits.
The free training by Summit, which requires 100% attendance, is supported by public grants, philanthropy and growing relationships with private employers such as Atomic and Design Ready Controls. They want to diversify their workforce with employees who can make $50,000 or more after several years of work, training and advancement.
“Summit gave me an opportunity, but I had to get up at 6 a.m. and go to school, and I went to bed at midnight after my shift as a security officer,” said Her, who is married and the father of three. “I think I can make $75,000 or more eventually with Atomic, or a client.
“Before I came to IT, I played with computers. Now, I can troubleshoot problems and fix them with software tools. I like challenges. I like helping people and working with clients.”
The three Atomic employees are filling critical jobs for worker-hungry companies. Atomic has doubled employment to nearly 300 over the last several years. They also are the face of a fast-diversifying Twin Cities-area workforce.
Employment of people of color in the seven-county metropolitan area rose 50% to 430,520 between 2010 and 2018, according to the U.S. Census and Minnesota data, by labor-market analyst Tim O’Neill of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Meanwhile, total market employment grew 17% over those years to 1.98 million people. White employment grew 10.3%.
Minnesota’s unemployment rate is a low 3.3%. Because of the pace of baby boomer retirements, aging baby boomers need to be replaced by faster-growing minority communities to keep the state economy growing. And state job growth has slowed since 2017.
“I’m a capitalist,” said Atomic CEO Jim Wolford, who started the company in 2001. “This is not just about doing the right thing. I fish the pond where there are fish. And there are a lot of smart minority people who want to work in IT.
“And there also are a lot of white privileged kids with college degrees who don’t want to be a plumber or a field technician. They want to get rich writing software and make $150,000 for working only 40 hours a week. They have been ‘misparented.’ If I’m going to ‘parent,’ I will take the low-income hungry kid, whether white, black, whatever … who is willing to learn and work hard.”
Wolford, who worked through college, has hired 45 Summit graduates since 2018.
“Atomic is a good place for me,” said Onuoha, who earned a business degree from Mary University in North Dakota. “They have steps to advancement to get you where you need to go.”
Every Summit hire gets on-the-job training and an Atomic “fusion buddy” mentor to introduce them to corporate life, as well as soft-skills development with colleagues and clients. Communication often is as important as technical skills, particularly in customer-serving roles.
Summit CEO Louis King, who has more than doubled Summit’s budget from $4 million in 2010, invests up to a year or more in some students in education, interpersonal skills and training to produce, in aggregate, several hundred apprentices who can start at up to $22 an hour on careers in health care, construction and technology fields.
“We’ve been at this for a while,” King said. “This is the new model. College enrollment is declining. We’re looking for more [corporate] partners. Help us design, deliver and finance our training. This makes the Democrats and the Republicans happy.”
Next month, Best Buy, a Summit backer, will open one of its teen-tech centers on the Summit Academy campus on the North Side.
Design Ready Controls, the 500-employee Brooklyn Park-based maker of electronic-control panels, estimates that half of its local workforce is women and minorities, including about 30 hired from Summit over the last couple of years.
Other nonprofit trainers also increasingly rely on corporate partners, as well as two-year community colleges, to provide financial training and academic support. For example, Project for Pride In Living (PPL), the Minneapolis-based affordable housing manager and job-trainer, is supported by Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Wells Fargo, Hennepin County, Ameriprise Financial and others to which it supplies workers, who are disproportionately minority or immigrant.
“Workforce training is more than just training,” said May Xiong, vice president of career readiness at PPL. “ It is about a holistic approach. For example, some state and local governments only want to fund direct training and support services. That’s great but doesn’t acknowledge that … to ready a student requires assessments, coaching and work that needs to be done ahead of time and after placement. The government funding also allows limited overhead. Our true cost … is never fully covered. Employers also provide mock interviewing and job-shadowing opportunities.”
PPL and veteran training outfits such as Twin Cities Rise focus on low-income clients who may have lost work or are just entering. Some of them lack much formal education and have struggled with addiction or criminality.
The employers most likely to succeed in the program “tend to lean into our partnerships with an open mind and an open heart,” said Jacquelyn Carpenter, vice president of workforce development at Rise. “Their staff tend to learn more about the participants we serve. It is through these lessons that employers find ways to adapt their processes and methods to become more inclusive, supportive and authentic to the individuals.”
Rise employer-partners include Allianz North America, Ecolab, Target, Quality Ingredient Corp., Horizon Roofing and UPS.