Janiel Richards didn’t spend four years on an undergraduate college campus. Instead, she spent it at the multinational technology company IBM’s campus, starting when she was 17 years old, as a newly graduated high school student. Today, after working her way up from intern to designer, she has a paid position as a visual designer for the company’s Chief Information Officer.
Richards’ unique path began when New York Public School’s lottery system placed her at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 2013. The school, commonly known as P-Tech, was created only two years earlier with a partnership between the city, CUNY, and IBM. It now enrolls between 550 to 600 students each year.
The goal is to address the skills gap and to enable students to begin their college and professional lives more quickly by interning in the tech industry and completing a two-year community college degree while they are still in high school.
But Richards said she was never interested in technology and never plans to be. Acting, writing, music, anything media related is what plays in her mind 24/7, she said.
“I was a consumer and did not really want to create tech,” Richards said. “And I think once you realize you want to create more than you want to consume of a thing, that’s how you really find your passion and your path.”
P-Tech helped her realize that technology plays a role in all the different industries in which she was drawn. She calls it the “omnipresence” technology has in the corporate world— a P-Tech taught sentiment.
Since its launch, the school’s model has grown to over 120 schools across the U.S. and the world, and 40 of those schools’ industry partner is IBM. As of April 2020, 243 students have graduated from IBM-affiliated P-TECHs and 36 of them have accepted positions at IBM— about 15% of the total graduates. 28 of those 36 IBM hires have been from P-Tech Brooklyn.
Once a student lands a position at IBM, they face a lot of challenges, said P-TECH’s Principal Rashid Davis. “Challenges that I have never even had to face,” Davis said.
Some of those challenges, said Davis, include working in an environment that is different from where students came from— working with a majority male team, often wealthier than them, and often coming from a less elite higher education background than their team. Others include adjusting to a full work-day schedule and balancing pursuing a bachelor’s degree while working.
But for Richards, cultural clashes paled in comparison to the difficulties of learning the pace of the corporate world.
“I won’t say it was a smooth transition, because in all honesty it was sort of a working transition,” Richards said. “It wasn’t the greatest, but I was always open to it being better.”
There were many support systems in place that helped Richards feel stable during the transition: the internship she had at IBM while still in high school made her familiar with the people she was working with, a class at P-Tech called “Workplace Learning,” and a hands-on mentorship team at IBM who supported and inspired Richards along the way.
All freshman at P-Tech take a class called “Workplace Learning,” which is dedicated to teaching students about the workplace and instilling a career-orientated mindset early on. The class prepares students to handle exactly the challenges Davis hears about. For Richards, this class gave her the soft skills to navigate the workplace.
“I knew I had like this team to help me, but I also knew that I had to remember who I was,” Richards said. “I don’t know how to explain it. But part of who I was, was the person that I was built up to be in Workplace Learning: The person who knew how to write fire emails, who knew how to put on the right hat when talking to different people. Not to say just like to code switch or anything, but to know place and time, know how to read the room, and stuff like that.”
Before the school’s model was founded, nine entry-level jobs at IBM that all required job applicants to have bachelor’s degrees were analyzed, Stanely Litow, IBM Foundation’s President Emeritus and P-Tech founder, said. Litow examined the skills they required to understand how a student at P-Tech, through both high school programing and internships, could be considered eligible for the same job.
“What I said to the HR department at IBM was if we could guarantee that students would get not only an associate’s degree, but also those skills that you value for those jobs, embedded in the instructional materials, would you agree to modify the requirement and say that a student who completed the P-Tech program would be eligible?” Litow said. “And they agreed.”
IBM works hard to interview hiring managers about what skills they need their employees to have, Joel Mangan, the Executive Director at P-Tech IBM, said. While this doesn’t translate into “curriculum” per say, it does play a large factor in guiding P-Tech teachers how to teach.
At the launch of any P-Tech school, and throughout the year, an IBM education program manager has conversations with P-Tech teachers about how these skills can be incorporated into the classroom learning.
“What are the key skills that we see students will need for the future and that will contribute to the jobs that are really growing in that community?” Mangan said they ask. “We really want to make sure that the students in the program graduate to jobs that exist.”
Mangan calls these jobs “new collar jobs,” but acknowledges that students are competing with others that are coming from very different backgrounds than the typical student at P-Tech.
“Especially in Fortune 500 companies that used to hire students with a four-year degree, at a minimum, we are trying to make the case that your skills matter,” Mangan said. “Those professional skills that we work to build with P-Tech students matter, and there are jobs that do not require a four-year degree or a master’s for you to be competent for those jobs.”
Mangan said that students are coming into these jobs and are successful, however, they are facing challenges, that aren’t unique to just IBM.
“The entire tech industry needs to work very hard to figure out how to integrate students who graduate from the associate’s degree into companies,” Mangan said. “Like every other tech company, I think we need to work closely with our managers to help them learn how to manage students that may be coming from a slightly different background.”
Other challenges that Litow has seen recent graduates face while working at IBM include balancing pursuing a bachelor’s degree or having to make a geographic move across the country and adjust to a brand-new home.
Currently, Richards is getting her bachelor’s in fine arts in design, and she is trying to transition into a more senior role at IBM.
“Whenever I’m transitioning in my life or IBM life, I’ve had the blessing of a mentor in that sort of P-Tech chain of command to remind me of my capability,” Richards said.
“Some of them have challenges on the job where they weren’t as successful as they could be. They needed support to be able to be successful,” Litow said. “The good thing is the [P-Tech] mentors stick with them and help them through that transition.”