Moving Fast and Staying on Target: Lessons from Per Scholas’s Experience with Remote Training

An Interview with Bridgette Gray

By Alissa Stover, Frieda Molina

The loss of nearly 40 million jobs in the 10 weeks since the U.S. outbreak of the coronavirus means demand-driven occupational skills training has never been more essential. Although the need for reskilling will become more acute, workforce training providers face the added challenge of how to respond quickly to the evolving economic landscape. We are witnessing a test of these skills during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced programs across the United States to move to virtual training. The adjustments these programs have made and lessons they are garnering will endure and have applicability for the future.

How can job training providers retool to meet the demand for remote services? This post shares insights on how Per Scholas, a sector-based training and career advancement program, tackled this challenge in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Per Scholas, headquartered in New York, New York, with 14 locations around the country, participated in MDRC’s WorkAdvance evaluation, which found large and consistent impacts in Per Scholas’s approach to sector-based training. Per Scholas connects highly motivated students from overlooked talent pools to employers with information technology job openings, training more than 2,000 adults in 2019. We sat down with Bridgette Gray, Chief Impact Officer at Per Scholas, and discussed how the organization successfully transitioned 521 students and 200 staff to a virtual training environment over a single, remarkable week in March 2020 and how the short-term demands of this extraordinary period are reshaping how they think about doing business.

What are the challenges and opportunities you are seeing for students in this remote work?

What has fascinated me more than anything is our students’ adaptability. People often put students who come to Per Scholas into the bucket of “needing life skills.” But they have an amazing ability to pivot and adapt so quickly! Career coaches are working with students to identify these skills so they can tell this story during interviews about their ability to adapt, work in team environments, give feedback. We also launched a mentorship program, matching students with Per Scholas staff and board members that focuses especially on the skills needed to be a remote employee: how to manage their time, how to set up and participate in business video conferences.

Tips on Maintaining Equity
  • Track the skills students are demonstrating by working remotely and use these in interviews and resumes.
    These professional skills include agility and adaptability; teamwork; good communication (verbal & non-verbal); ability to give and receive feedback; time management; and how to set up and participate in video conferences.
  • Reflect on your mission and assess whether you are serving your intended population as the workforce changes.
    Gather data on candidates and analyze how characteristics of newer applicants differ from usual.
  • Assess student technology access.
    To ensure equity, you can't assume students have technology or internet access. You need a detailed picture of student assets and needs.

    Per Scholas asked 4 survey questions for assessing needs:
    1. Do you have a computer (laptop or desktop)?
    2. Do you have internet access? If you don’t have internet, do you have a hotspot?
    3. Do you pay for a data plan on your phone?
    4. Do you have equipment for video conferences, such as headset and working microphones and cameras?
  • Meet student tech and support needs.
    Provide hotspots, hardware, support services. Many partnerships would need to make long-term commitments to meeting hardware needs.

We beefed up student support services. Our team of social workers created surveys to gauge how students are feeling physically and mentally. If someone needs individual attention, we connect them with services around, for example, mental health, which is a big issue. Students have to balance being in the house and being caregivers or parents all day. We know that quite a few people have lost their jobs and some students also need money. We were grateful to be able to make one-time grants of up to $500 per student through a partnership with the Stand Together Foundation.

We have an opportunity with remote learning. We know that when we go back on site, it will combine learning modalities, including the possibility of a mix of remote and in person learning, and require new uses of our space to maintain physical distancing. We’d like to have a remote learning offering for folks who would prefer that. We are also looking into having a hybrid model with hands-on labs onsite but lectures offsite. We are investing in technology to have an instructor on-site in a classroom, but able to teach across multiple cities - a blended learning model we had begun piloting before the COVID-19 crisis. This reduces the need for on-site instructors and gives us a bigger reach.

What else has changed about the Per Scholas training program and who is coming to your front door?

We have a pipeline of over 450 candidates and are seeing an uptick in some markets coming from those who have been displaced. Some markets are calling on us to help – for example, we are working with Dallas in thinking around how to upskill restaurant workers. I get super concerned about a 2008 recession repeat where we saw many prospective students laid off. We also saw in the last recession how degree requirements and the years of experience inflated during the recovery. The workforce is changing, and poverty always loses. We will remain laser-focused on ensuring that individuals from overlooked communities can gain access to the skills and opportunities they need to build transformational careers in tech.

In terms of learning materials, prior to COVID-19 we created a remote virtual lab for our cyber course where students can simulate going into virtual server labs and plugging in network cables. This change was really tied into how students sit for certifications where there is a virtual hands-on piece much like our virtual lab. Before COVID-19 we had already kicked off a blended instruction model centered on software engineering training where one instructor in one site was teaching the course remotely for another site. As we transitioned folks to our online program, we gave both instructors and students half-day trainings on the new learning platform.

Tips on Program Adaptations
  • Adapt classes to fit the remote environment.
    Adjust your attendance policy and write a guide for students on how to succeed in remote training. Create virtual hands-on labs and provide a half-day of training on the new platform. Break content into chunks and allow assignments to be completed throughout the day, whenever timing is best for students.
  • Stay in touch with employer partners.
    Reach out and assess current and future needs. Adjust training so that your students are prepared to meet that need. Provide opportunities for employers to engage remotely, doing resume reviews, mock interviews, and guest lectures.
  • Increase communication and contact.
    Emphasize icebreakers and team building work at training sessions and increasing student support services. Increase touch points with staff by pairing students with mentors. Increase contact with instructors and career coaches. Consider reducing class size.
  • Do the same for instructors.
    Create a guidance document on remote learning and provide a half-day training on new platform. Increase weekly touch points between instructors and staff for support and troubleshooting. Observe classes and provide real-time feedback. 
  • Track whether changes are working.
    Increase or adapt data collection and adjust performance indicators.  

We changed the course structure so that assignments could be completed throughout the day, not just 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. We also broke it into chunks with a few hours engaging remotely with an instructor, then 2 to 3 hours doing group or independent work or assignments. We had to be flexible in terms of our attendance policy. The reality is people are at home, taking care of children and busy with homework and caregiving.

We still want to have a sense of community from beginning to end and want to help everyone complete. One thing we did was have a kickoff meeting focusing on building team dynamics, with lots of icebreakers, interactive exercises and small group assignments. This type of kick off meeting precedes any classroom instruction and helps  build team dynamics, a sense of community, and connections among students. We can do this in a virtual environment too. We also made sure that we have two instructors at all times, so they can support students on a deeper level. We are soliciting and receiving a lot of feedback from students around what is and is not working.

We also needed more weekly touch points with instructors than we did before. Every Friday, our team that manages instruction at the national level meets with Per Scholas instructors. This involves ongoing training on curricula, classroom management, troubleshooting remote-learning tech, and on how to keep students engaged. We put together a remote learning document for instructors. This team also does drop-in observations of classes, using an observation sheet to record and give real time feedback to instructors. We also kept all of our instructional assistants. We build instructors out from the alumni pool and so we want to make sure to keep helping them develop their skills. The more instructors we have, the more classes we can teach.

How are you responding to changes in the labor market?

We have built out a very specific process with employers where we do an assessment for current needs and needs in 90 to 100 days. Then we teach in line with where things have shifted. We asked managing directors to have business solutions teams reach out to employers and ask if they are still planning to hire. We are getting employers more engaged with students, earlier and in different ways. We have a lot of virtual corporate engagement and volunteering efforts, such as more resume reviews, mock interviews, and guest lectures.

What we teach is always relevant because we are closely listening to the demands of our employer network. As the new COVID-19 world evolves, we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that our tech training transforms with it. We’ve recently collaborated with AWS re/Start, a skills development program that prepares learners for entry-level careers in the cloud. The program’s mission is to build local talent by providing AWS Cloud skills development and job opportunities to unemployed and underemployed candidates as the technology working world has pivoted considerably to remote work. We expect an increasing demand across every industry and sector for cloud engineers capable of managing virtual networks and data flows. Cybersecurity, cloud, and end-user support are all super important right now. If an applicant expresses an interest in any of these, we redirect the application to that class. 

We are talking to employers with both current and former students in mind. We have a brand-new director of alumni services handling this on the national level. Google stepped up and gave us the opportunity to teach Python to alumni who aren’t working so they can keep building skills. Alumni are also the priority for placement if an employer has an open position.

What are the big lessons for other organizations?

Communication becomes much more important at a time like this. People naturally think about the need to communicate with the funder, but you need to talk to all stakeholders. We address every stakeholder individually with a different form of communication on our website. You need regular ongoing communication with students in your training and not just in the way you do when in-person. As I mentioned about our mentorship program, we matched every staff member (even the national staff and board members) to students.

It’s important to know what you are good at and not force something. If going remote doesn’t fit in the space of what you can manage, don’t try to force it. Try something different. Partner with organizations that are good at these things, so you make sure you take care of folks coming through the training tracks. You will lose people if you go remote and can’t manage it. Remote is not one-size-fits-all.

Recognize your students’ strengths. Our students find themselves in the unique position of both testing remote learning environments, while training for tech sector jobs where they may one day be helping companies shift to remote work.

Seeing the big picture: finding opportunity in challenge

While COVID-19 forced changes to its training, Per Scholas assessed its own advantages. Students remain engaged despite the considerable disruption posed by shelter-in-place orders. Providing remote training allows Per Scholas greater flexibility to adapt to students' work and family schedules and opened up access to a broader range of instructors. Per Scholas now thinks differently about the future and is considering whether some combination of onsite and remote training could become permanent, to better meet students' complex needs. The organization found greater opportunities for partnerships to fill gaps while continuing to do what they do best. Students are demonstrating remarkable adaptability in the changing program and are building the skills they need as remote employees.  Communication with all stakeholders, including funders, employers, as well as current and former students facilitated this successful transition. The program’s response to shelter-in-place orders is an example of adaptability in two directions: to both the supply and demand side of the labor market.

COVID-19 Topic