Dwyne Smith and James Nogler are not your typical computer science-grads and rookie software developers.
Smith, 38, and Nogler, 37, are career-switchers who found their way into tech through adult education and certification programs at colleges or non-profit organizations, like Summit Academy in North Minneapolis.
Smith lost his marketing job in the events industry when that face-to-face trade was slammed by the COVID-19 economic shutdown. "There were no other jobs," he recalled.
A parent and unable to afford a return to traditional college, Smith enrolled in Summit's fast-growing, five-month IT program. He always liked personal technology, but he didn't completely understand how it worked.
Smith and Nogler do now.
They are two of a dozen apprentice software developers and other IT rookies that U.S. Bank will hire from Summit this year at $60,000-plus.
Nogler, 37, a biochemistry graduate, lost his laboratory job during the Great Recession of 2008-09. He cobbled together a career that included painting houses, contract lighting technician and making stereo speakers. It was a struggle.
The training at Summit, where most students are low-income and 70%-plus are people of color, worked for them.
"The world got flat, and these older cats got dumped because of the economy," said Summit CEO Louis King, who has seen Summit's free training for up to 800 vocational students annually expand from construction trades to entry-level health care to IT a few years ago.
"We know most of them are broke," King said. "We train them, give them a laptop, support them and they become part of the tribe. … We give them a network.''
That's key, particularly for people whose opportunities are constrained by a lack of mentors, experience or connections.
King, a Florida native who was an after-college Army officer for a decade, has positioned Summit as trainer and networker. He broke ground with trade unions and construction contractors as they slowly opened up hiring minorities since the 1990s. King's objectives including building a bigger Black middle class in north Minneapolis and beyond.
He names Black trades workers who are well-paid Summit graduates who have served as examples and mentors for children, young relatives and others.
He calls this emerging network "the ant trail."
Conversely, he points out, the inner-city alternative often has been illicit economics, such as quick money from drug sales or stealing. That often ends poorly.
Azra Jones, 24, another Summit graduate at U.S. Bank, dropped out of college after a year, knowing that he shouldn't blow through tuition unsure of a major. He didn't enjoy being a bank teller for a few years and burned out as a $13-an-hour grocery clerk, during the early months of COVID-19.
"I had to wear 10 hats, there was only two months of hazard pay,'' and there wasn't a clear path to advancement, Jones said.
He and his girlfriend were struggling to make rent on two part-time incomes. Jones had a friend in the carpentry program at Summit. He always was good at technology and decided to enroll. Today, he's making good money and is a proud parent.
"We have 12 members on our team and I'm the only apprentice," Jones said. "My first day they told me what I was working on and that people were there to help me. I work in the currency transaction reporting department. I love what I'm doing."
King said Summit's enrollment is now restrained by competition from $15-an-hour entry-level retail-and-hospitality jobs that require little training. Summit's five-month schooling is rigorous. It places graduates in jobs that pay from $17.50 to $31 per hour.
Employment is rising for Minnesota Blacks, after a disastrous 2020. For the previous decade African American and other minorities in Twin Cities-area counties saw employment ranks grow at double or more the rate of the overall job market in many categories. However, incomes were not growing as fast for many of service-sector jobs.
In August, the state employment department reported the official Black unemployment rate had dropped from 9.5% to 3.6% from 2020, besting August's rate of 4.4% for whites. Department economists, who get some key data from U.S. Census Bureau, are waiting for more data to confirm that development, noting pandemic-related factors have led to inconsistencies in surveys.
But it's clear that growth in the labor force is coming from minorities, including immigrants. Their success is critical to Minnesota's economic future.