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CitySkills ties supply, demand

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By Todd Cohen

A Boston nonprofit formed in 1999 to help local job-training programs better prepare inner-city residents for entry-level technology jobs at professional firms is shifting and expanding its focus.

CitySkills, launched by Web firm CitySoft, now also aims to help employers find interns and workers from training programs in Boston and other cities.

And based on what it learns from employers, CitySkills plans to help training programs better market themselves and tailor their services to meet employers’ needs.

“Typically in urban training, all the money and focus and relationship-building and activity goes on at the training-center level, and connection to the mainstream economy and employers or businesses is often on the backburner or an afterthought,” said Nick Gleason, CitySoft’s CEO and a CitySkills board member.

CitySkills still will support the work of job-training programs, he said, but has moved its attention to employers “because the way people typically get hired is through building relationships with the hiring organizations.”

After working for several nonprofit community-development agencies in the early 1990s, Gleason enrolled in Harvard Business School with the idea of working in the for-profit world to address urban-development needs.

The result was CitySoft, a Web firm he formed in 1997.

Gleason hired three-fifths of his roughly 50 staffers from the inner-city before the tech bubble burst in 2000 and he cut his workforce by roughly half.

And he found that while many of the poor and minority workers he had hired had good tech skills, they also tended to lack workplace know-how.

So in 1999, CitySoft launched CitySkills, a nonprofit that initially focused on job-training’s supply side.

CitySkills worked as an advocate, promoted “best training practices,” brokered software donations to training programs, developed a training curriculum and organized the Digital Workforce Alliance among job-training programs in Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, with funding from the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, and pro-bono help from consultants in the Boston office of McKinsey & Co., CitySkills assessed the urban job-training field, and found that many programs had poor relationships with industry.

“What we really discovered was that these training programs were really good at understanding and being attentive to the trainee,” said Farron Levy, CitySkills’ executive director. “What they were less good at was being attentive to the companies for whom they were preparing these trainees to work.”

Based on its findings, CitySkills has opted to focus on job-training’s demand side, serving as an “intermediary” that builds ties with employers, identifies their needs for tech workers and helps them create internships and jobs.

“This is a major gap,” Levy said. “What we really need to do is help employers communicate what their needs are to training programs. If training programs don’t have strong relationships with industry, then they don’t know how to prepare workers properly.”

CitySkills already has developed a network of more than 50 Boston-area companies, and is working to help them track their entry-level tech jobs, and identify the technical and professional skills those jobs require.

CitySkills also encourages companies in its network to consider applicants from job-training programs in the region.

A partnership that CitySkills formed this spring with Keane Inc., a Boston-based tech firm with 7,500 employees worldwide, represents the type of relationship the nonprofit aims to develop with industry, Levy said.

Keane, which has developed online tools to train its own workforce, will help CitySkills convert to electronic form paper-based materials it has developed for supervisors and job-training graduates to address workplace issues, including how to deal with one another.

Keane also aims to provide internships for inner-city workers trained by programs in CitySkills’ network, and will encourage other companies and its own business partners to sponsor internships, said Elizabeth Black, Keane’s vice president for learning and organizational development.

“If we can do a better job, once they’re trained in the technology, in  bridging the gap from formal education to the reality of the workplace and the expectations of the workplace,” she said, “we believe the internships will be more successful and ultimately lead to better prepared candidates and, ultimately, to jobs.”

Black, for example, hopes to form a consortium of Boston-area firms that can work with WorkforceDesigns Inc., a Keane partner in Bedford, N.H, that helps identify state and federal workforce-development grants.

“We believe that government agencies totally support consortiums between nonprofits and corporations looking to develop the workforce,” she said.

While the current economic slump might seem like a bad time to promote urban job-training and placement, Levy said, inner-city workers can provide employers with a “cost-effective, long-term talent pool.”

Those workers generally command lower pay and stay in their jobs longer than do workers hired with more skills and experience, he said.

“It’s definitely lower cost to the companies, which is an incentive, but it’s also a great opportunity for these urban trainees,” he said.

“Companies don’t do their philanthropy in hiring,” he said. “They need to be convinced that when they hire someone, they can do the job. And folks from these training programs can do the job.”

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