Some students graduating from El Paso Independent School District in Texas already have gotten a jump on the future—and an introduction to well-paid and highly sought-after information technology (IT) careers.

The Center for Career and Technology Education in El Paso is one of the first schools in the country to team up with National Computer Systems Inc. (NCS) to provide a full curriculum of training to prepare students for computer certification through the company’s REALskills! program.

REALskills! is an IT certification program that combines interactive courseware, multi-media lectures, teaching guides and mentoring, guided students lessons, hands-on labs, and real-world internship placement.

The program is supported by NCS in partnership with SmartForce, a provider of the online courseware and teacher mentoring through its Scholars.com subsidiary, and Manpower Professional, a service dedicated to the placement of students in technical internships.

The program allows students to gain MCP (Microsoft Certified Personnel) certification, the first step toward the major certification of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineering (MCSE). It also places them in high-paying internships and lucrative summer jobs in the IT field.

El Paso schools recently implemented NCS’s newest certification program, A+ Certification. Announced in November, the newest phase of REALskills! allows students to gain certification recognized by CompTIA (the Computing Technology Industry Association) on basic hardware, software, operating systems, and networks. Students with A+ certification credentials can find jobs as computer repair and service technicians.

The demand for trained IT professionals is staggering, with more than 190,000 unfilled technical jobs available at mid-to large-size organizations, according to the Information Technology Association of America. If that number is raised to include small companies, the association estimates that there are around 400,000 positions for trained professionals available today.

The benefits of programs like REALskills! are overwhelming, said Mike Little, a computer instructor at El Paso’s Center for Career and Technology Education. “The student has the potential benefit of being able to leave high school not only with a diploma, but with a certified skill in an area of great demand and excellent pay, ” he said.

Little added, “To achieve this outside of our program would cost the student five to ten thousand dollars.” He estimates that students graduating with certification can earn around $10 per hour right out of high school, where the average high school graduate is earning minimum wage or slightly more.

According to Little, the REALskills! program has received raves not only from students, but teachers as well: “The teachers that are associated with the course think it’s a great program … We brought teachers from other high schools into our school for orientation tours. Those that saw the program for Windows NT, in addition to being amazed that it was being offered, wanted to know if they could take the course.”

The Center for Career and Technology Education has been able to integrate REALskills! into its curriculum successfully with minimal stress, spending, and instructor training, Little said.

“Provided the classroom has the proper computer set-up, the program is very easy to implement,” he explained. “The classroom only needs basic computers, by today’s standards.” To use the program, schools need Pentium 133s or better, and 16 MB of RAM with a VGA monitor.

The class also must be networked to a server that is equipped with a Pentium 233 or better processor, 64 MB of RAM, a 4 GB hard drive, CD-ROM, and Windows NT, Little said.

He also noted that there is very little staff training required to implement the program, as students receive most of their training from the computer program and any questions they have can be directed to the SmartForce instructor at Scholars.com. “The instructor’s role is that of a facilitator,” he said.

According to NCS, studies have shown that using a computer-based training course helps students learn and retain 5 percent more information that using a textbook.

With the REALskills! certification program, students can work at their own pace, and they have access to the most up-to date information. “A real benefit to having the training on the computer is the ease and speed of updating material,” Little said. “Our curriculum is revised every year, and if I have problems with the software, I can get a solution and implement it within two hours. Try getting an update on your textbook that quickly.”

Programs like REALskills! can be instrumental in increasing the employability of high school graduates, according to NCS. Little added, “An advantage that our students have is that they have already been faced with a difficult course that forced them to study, they have a good idea if this is the field they want to work in, and they have a skill that will allow them to earn enough money so that they can pay for college.”

Schools pay for the REALskills! program through a 3-year licensing program, though NCS includes a funding out-clause if a school district loses its funding and can’t participate any longer. Though El Paso currently has no plans to do this, some schools that take part in the program plan to offer the IT training to adults in the evening on a per-fee basis to make the program pay for itself, according to Nancy Miller, product manager.

National Computer Systems Inc.
http://www.ncs.com

REALskills! program
http://www.realskills.com

Scholars.com
http;//www.scholars.com

Manpower Professional
http://www.manpower.com