A couple of years ago, Tonesia Williams was collecting unemployment. Esmeralda Reyes was making little more than minimum wage cleaning hotel rooms. Neither woman had a high school diploma. What they had was resolve to make better lives for themselves and their kids. What they needed was an opportunity.

Minnesota's FastTRAC program, which offers education, vocational training and job placement to unemployed and underemployed adults, gave it to them.

Today, Williams and Reyes both have graduate equivalent degrees (GEDs). They both work as certified nursing assistants. They both attend college classes. And they are both on track to become licensed practical nurses.

Their progress and the progress of other FastTRAC participants recently led the White House to praise the program and another Minnesota employment initiative as national models for adult job training.

The other program, a Minneapolis-based boot camp to teach computer coding to military veterans, women and minorities, is still in the planning stages. But it is one of three pilot projects in the U.S. aimed at the Holy Grail of adult job training: 12 weeks of compressed career education that leads immediately to jobs paying $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

"We reviewed America's training programs to make sure they have one mission: to train our workers with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now," said White House spokeswoman Kaelan Richards. "The programs highlighted in Minnesota, the FastTRAC program and innovative coding boot camps, are part of the work that's happening in cities and states across the country to help workers train for jobs of the 21st century."

Gov. Mark Dayton pushed to add $3 million to the FastTRAC program in a jobs bill he signed in 2013. Before that, the program, which started in 2010, operated on roughly $2.75 million in public funds, mostly from the federal government, and $800,000 in donations from the United Way.

Since its inception, FastTRAC officials say, the program has served 3,000 Minnesotans. Roughly nine in 10 have completed college courses or credentialing courses. Seven in 10 continue to educate themselves or are working.

Williams and Reyes do both.

Besides unemployment payments, Williams, a 38-year-old single mother of five, needed help with transportation and tuition to get her GED. She still receives federal rent subsidies to afford a place to live. But she's working overtime to get free of it all. She takes college math classes and gets individual tutoring to hone number and reasoning skills she will need to become a licensed practical nurse. She also holds down a nursing assistant's job.

"This is a steppingstone for me," she said. "I want to keep moving forward so I don't have to depend on the government."

Reyes, 25, migrated to the U.S. from Mexico. She is the first person in her family to get a GED. She hopes to have her licensed practical nurse's (LPN) certification by the end of 2016. Juggling college, work and parenting a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old leaves her just five or six hours a night to sleep. She chalks it up to the cost of escaping a career path destined to end as an $8-an-hour hotel maid.

Reyes knew she wanted more. She just didn't know how to get it. As it did for Williams, FastTRAC provided Reyes with direction and support.

"I had no clue about going to college or how to find scholarships," she said. "I have a younger sister who was going to drop out of school. She sees me make my own money. I told her about the program. Now, she's a [certified nursing assistant], too. She's planning to go for an LPN or an RN [registered nurse]. My youngest sister is graduating high school and going to college. I always wanted to be a role model to my family."

Nationally, median pay for LPNs is $35,000 per year. For RNs it is $66,000.

Rapid training

In theory, nonprofit computer coding camps in Minneapolis, Louisville and Kansas City promise higher salaries in a fraction of the time. The Minneapolis camp, administered by the city in cooperation with the Minnesota High Tech Association, will run initially on $300,000 in state and local money and a $100,000 donation from the Creating IT Futures Foundation. The anticipated 12-week curriculum will be designed to lead to positions that the high tech association says will pay $50,000 to $70,000 per year.

"If you have the aptitude and know coding, you don't need a formal degree," said Deb Bahr-Helgen, the city's employment and training director.

She hopes to offer an inaugural boot camp with 20 to 30 participants by year's end. They will earn "industry-recognized credentials," she said.

The tech association has been trying to rally Minnesota companies to hire the graduates, but it has been a hard sell.

"The needs are dire in certain sectors," said Tim Barrett, who directs workforce development for the tech association. So employers "would consider a nontraditional route" for hiring. But the boot camp model is unproven, so businesses are leery.

"The concern is not just about content and knowing [programming languages]," Barrett explained. "It is: 'Are these people ready to work?' "

Charles Eaton, CEO of the Creating IT Futures Foundation, calls the training and employment plan "a grand experiment." He has been tracking for-profit coding programs in search of a contractor to run the Minneapolis camp. Participants in the all-day program will attend for free or at steeply discounted rates.

"We will look for low-income people, veterans and minorities. We're going to target adults who never thought they could do this," Eaton said. Details can be found online at http://bit.ly/1nSaLS7.

The IT Futures Foundation has been operating an adult information technology training program in the Twin Cities since 2012. Admission to those free courses is highly competitive, said Eaton, with roughly 200 applicants for each 25-person class. But those graduates have only entry-level IT skills.

Eaton expects fiercer competition for every slot in coding boot camp. The admission process will likely need to include some form of testing to ensure that those admitted have the baseline aptitude.

"This is aimed at people 18 and over who need to make a career change," Eaton said. "We're looking at adults laid off from manufacturing jobs with a certain cognitive level. We're hoping to find those diamonds in the rough."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123