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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Program Matches Veterans Struggling To Find Work With Jobs That Actually Pay The Bills

Courtney Collins
Jisenia Smith (left) and Percy Windom (right) in NPower's tech fundamentals class work on configuring wireless routers.

There's a training program in Dallas that wants to match veterans struggling to find work with jobs that actually pay the bills.

Business Insider ranked Dallas-Fort Worth the 11th most "high-tech city" in the world last year, up from 28th the year before. There's plenty of demand for tech workers, just not enough supply.

Struggling as a civilian

Guadalupe Piña, who likes to go by "Lupe," has an impressive resume. A stint in the National Guard, the Army Reserves and the Marine Corps. He's got a bachelor's degree and a master's. Still, after leaving the Marines he couldn't find work.

"When I left the service, it was a little bit of a struggle, the first time around in the Marine Corps, just having to come back out into the civilian world and just trying to find a job," he said.

He worked in banking for a while, processing mortgages. Then he was laid off. That's when he decided to finish work on his master's degree in management information systems. He figured the job search would go much more smoothly after grad school.

"During that time, of course, I thought, 'Well OK, now I have a master's, maybe it will be a lot more easier.' Come to find out it wasn't that easy," he said. "I was being overqualified, or underqualified. And at that point, I was going on a year and a half."

A year and a half of unemployment despite years of military service and higher education. Pina says he was barely making it financially.

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News

A new chapter

So he decided to try something new classes in tech fundamentals and coding offered by a nonprofit called NPower.  

The idea behind these free classes is to train veterans, who already do well on a team and are highly skilled, to fill vacant jobs in the tech industry. NPower's program director Brittany Worden says there are more than enough of those to go around.

"A lot of employers we talk to tell us that they have all these technology jobs but no local talent," she said "So they're having to find talent from other countries and bring them in to do these jobs."

The NPower classes range from 12 to 26 weeks, and include a paid internship. Worden says completing just the tech fundamentals class can open all kinds of doors.

"These people can fix computers remotely, they can fix them in front of you, they can build them, they can set up networks, they can do your software updates," she said.

Career possibilities with financial stability

If student passes the exam after taking Tech Fundamentals, they'll get an APlus certification which can pave the way for good-paying jobs. Starting out at $40,000 a year is a safe bet, but Brittany Worden says some salaries can be as high as $88,000, and that's just after getting through tech fundamentals. Additional work in coding or cybersecurity means six figure salaries are possible.

For a lot of these veterans, that kind of money is life-changing.

"Some of them are in the process of being evicted. Some of them haven't worked in a long time. Some of them are homeless," Worden said. "We've had veterans living out of their cars if they were fortunate enough to even have a car."

Which is why these tech classes come with additional support. NPower works with social service agencies to make sure the veterans enrolled have food and shelter. El Centro College pays for bus passes, so everyone has a way to get to class. In the four years this program has been up and running, about 1,000 veterans have enrolled, and 80 percent make it through.

"You have to be willing to accept what life brings you and continue to throw those punches back."

Changing his story

That means Lupe Piña is just one of the success stories.

"You have to be willing to change. You have to be willing to accept what life brings you and continue to throw those punches back. And say 'OK, I made it. This is what I have to do.' And finally I've done it, I've got myself out of my slump," he said.

After struggling through unemployment and a career change, he's now a server analyst at the University of North Texas in Denton, earning $70,000 a year and working with colleagues he admires. All it took was some training, and a little faith.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.