DENVER • Quasey Vinson gave her kindergartner a taste of a faraway place. “Could you possibly mix pineapple juice with apple juice?” he asked the waitress.
“And a mahi-mahi taco?” asked Tyrese, who was missing his two front teeth. Vinson lowered his head at the extra charge. “A mahi-mahi, please, and the rest of the chicken.”
The request matched the wish on the 5-year-old’s wish list for preschool graduation: a trip to an exotic island. Tropical treats were a father’s compromise. “Do you want to go to an island? We can’t do that now. One day we will.
Vinson, 47, feels pretty good about his chances of having a full life with Tyrese now that he has a new career in computer technology. After a lifetime of jobs that led nowhere, he embarked on a program to acquire computer skills that he knew would increase his value with salivating employers to meet urgent information technology needs.
The fact that he landed in Denver after leaving the military was a happy coincidence. Denver Metro’s share of national tech jobs grew 2% from 2015 to 2019, according to the Brookings Institute, and the city is considered a hub for the industry.
El Paso County is also a tech hub and suffers from IT experts. Figures from the Colorado Springs Chamber & Economic Development Corp. show that of approximately 28,500 openings last month, almost a tenth were to software developers, systems engineers and information security analysts.
According to the Department of Labor and Employment, Colorado has a critical shortage of computer workers. The latest numbers show that of 115,000 openings in Colorado, 15,863 are in computer technology and math fields.
Vinson held one when he took a job three weeks ago.
“I am in a better position to have my own accommodation, an apartment. My son can stay with me, so I’m with him every weekend instead of being sparing,” said Vinson, who credits his recent good fortune to an unconventional training and job placement program called Activate Work.
The trip was not easy.
Just two years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers veteran was down after moving to Colorado to start a family with Tyrese’s mother. This failed relationship, as well as the pandemic, put him in trouble even though he was working two jobs.
“I worked as a line cook in a restaurant and I also worked in a warehouse. I loved those jobs, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.
A counselor from the Department of Veterans Affairs handed him a recruiting flyer for the non-profit organization Activate Work, which promised free tuition, computer equipment, exam fees and career advice to people wishing to take their 15-week computer training program.
The kicker? It was free.
Vinson discovered that Activate Work was real. But this commitment would require a radical lifestyle change. Vinson went through two interviews just to be accepted into AW’s program.
“They liked my desire to learn and my willingness to do something different,” Vinson said. When he graduated in November 2020, he was part of AW’s second class. “After COVID hit and everything was shut down, I wanted to add to my skills. I wanted to add something else to my resume for the recovery of the economy.
The founder and president of Activate Work, Helen Young Hayes, was on the same wave of thought. When COVID-19 started, Hayes predicted that once the pandemic was over, employers would starve for reliable employees; Moreover, not only would people lose jobs in retail and fast food to automation, but IT could provide a firm landing for these displaced workers.
“What we’ve seen during the pandemic is a bigger move towards working from home. And 40% of people who worked in economically cyclical and displaced industries in Colorado during the pandemic say they were looking for a career before it started,” Hayes said. “There is a difference between a job and a career.”
His solution? A focus on a population struggling to achieve financial security. It seemed like a win-win.
Activate Work recruits marginalized workers it calls “diamonds in the rough,” who have been laid off or are disillusioned with their jobs. AW trains and coaches them, placing them in Colorado companies desperate to fill thousands of empty computer stations.
People like Vinson who are accepted for Activate Work take an accelerated computer program instead of earning a college degree, which Hays says is an unnecessary expense for that particular discipline.
“IT was recruiting IT graduates in four years. But there is a one million IT talent shortage in the United States. We have a real macro problem for computing,” Hayes said. “That’s what employers tell us they want. This program moves people into the middle class very quickly.
Colorado companies using Hayes’ investment program include First Bank, Ping Identity, Bank of America, Trimble and Denver Health. Companies pay a fee for the service and for ongoing training, and Hayes supplements that with philanthropy.
Learners, as AW calls its interns, have been known to triple their annual salary once placed. The average starting salary for potential workers who complete the Activate Work program starts at $20 per hour and the retention rate is one year, about 35% higher than the industry average.
Hayes said all it takes for people like Vinson is a willingness to go through the training and a desire for a better life. “We look at people who are struggling to make ends meet. Historically, Colorado has ranked 12th in overall prosperity, but we ranked 37th in racial inclusiveness.
“We don’t target diversity for diversity’s sake. Our goal is to get them to the point where they can take care of their families and generate salaries instead of barely earning salaries.”
In addition to training, AW devotes one day a week to helping learners target their goals and write CVs. Behavioral health is also part of the training.
A mental health turnaround was exactly what Vinson needed. With his unemployment money, he bought a computer for virtual classes. His next goal is to buy a car. He solves technology problems in the field at 9th Way Insignia, a cybersecurity and software development company within the VA, which has a branch in Colorado.
One day he will take Tyrese to build castles in the sand.
” I am in admiration. I have tears sometimes when I think about the trip,” Vinson said. “Things are moving”