In the tech world, the demand for skilled workers is huge. Forbes Magazine recently estimated that one million employees are needed in cybersecurity alone. But they also predicted that by 2020, there will be 400,000 graduates with the skills necessary to fill 1.5 million jobs. How can that gap be filled?

Through innovative programs like the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA), a collaborative effort between Saint Martin’s UniversityJoint-Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) and Microsoft, which offers a 16-week training designed to help service members transition to highly skilled technology careers. “You can see the problem. This is why companies are interested in training or retraining vets,” says Radana Dvorak, Dean of Saint Martin’s University’s Extended Learning Division.

Saint Martin's University
The MSSA offers a unique collaboration between the tech industry, the military, and institutes of higher learning like Saint Martin’s University. Photo courtesy: Saint Martin’s University

The program is so effective that 98% of its graduates move directly into full-time careers with companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Amazon while the remaining 2% stay in school to further their education. Two graduates have been to the White House while another has testified before Congress on its behalf.

“The Department of Defense has told us that it’s the most successful transitioning program in the U.S.,” says Dvorak. The collaboration with Saint Martin’s at JBLM was so successful that Microsoft has expanded the program’s model to three other military bases with other universities around the country. They’re adding five more in January and will roll out nine more throughout the year.

Microsoft and JBLM first approached Dvorak about piloting the program to attract highly skilled service members to IT fields that have thousands of unfilled positions. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act, a piece of legislation introduced by Washington State Senator Patty Murray, made the program possible. “She really pushed it through and that opened the door,” says Dvorak.  “The U.S. government was looking for a seamless way to transition from the military to employment.” The act allowed funding so that the military could release veterans up to four months before they actually transitioned out, with salary and health care still covered. Instead of going to work, their days were spent learning or training.

Veterans cover 18 credits of computer science in just 16 weeks which culminate in job interviews with industry giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM. Photo courtesy: Saint Martin’s University

“This was a natural fit for us,” says Dvorak. “We have a longstanding relationship with the military since one of its monks began teaching returning World War II veterans.” Saint Martin’s has had a presence on base since 1972, and the university was approached about the program because of its success in delivering higher education and careers to the military.

The first MSSA class on base began in the fall of 2014. Since then, 141 have gone through the MSSA, with another 35 service members completing the program by December. Current groups have a choice of two different academic and training paths: (1) Database Management and Business Intelligence and (2) Server and Cloud Administration. A third, Cybersecurity, is currently in development with plans for Saint Martin’s to offer the new learning path in the next academic year.

JBLM MSSA students graduate after an eighteen week intensive program
JBLM MSSA students graduate after an eighteen week intensive program. Photo courtesy: Saint Martin’s University

Until now the MSSA has been housed on the base, aimed primarily at military personnel. Beginning January 2017, the MSSA will be offered for the first time on the Saint Martin’s main campus in Lacey, in the new Panowicz Foundry for Innovation and E.L. Wiegand Laboratories. Dvorak notes that while the original JBLM program was designed for active duty personnel in the process of transitioning out, the new Lacey-based MSSA will open its doors to veterans already transitioned out of the military.

The MSSA program is demanding, says Dvorak. Participants earn 18 credits in 16 weeks and prepare for the Microsoft Certified Professional exam. Mentors from Microsoft call in or visit in person to help students prepare and deal with different aspects of transitioning from military to civilian life. “They help to prepare them for interviews and for a different type of working environment,” says Dvorak.

Military personnel are uniquely suited to the challenge, she believes. “Vets are mission-focused and they know how to work in team environments. They can deal with ambiguity and they have of soft problem-solving skills that a 22-year-old undergraduate won’t have. It’s just a matter of retraining them to work in a civilian world.”

While previous graduates of the MSSA program have gone on to work in Seattle or the Bay Area, in the future, more graduates may have the opportunity of finding tech jobs locally. “The Seattle-to-Portland-belt is going to become the Silicon Valley of the Pacific Northwest,” says Dvorak. “A huge influx of companies are moving north from California and south from Seattle and Bellevue. There are going to be more.”

MSSA Graduates
Ninety-eight percent of all graduates from the program transition into high paying jobs within the tech industry. Photo courtesy: Saint Martin’s University

Microsoft would like to see 1,000 veterans graduate from the program every year. Currently, the Saint Martin’s campus is on target to facilitate between 100 and 150 students per year. This year they’re opening the academy to veterans who are already out of the military and in another year they plan to include military spouses on main campus in Lacey.

The MSSA’s first cohort on Saint Martin’s Lacey campus will begin on January 24, 2017. Applications to the program are currently being accepted. Students who complete the MSSA program also receive a certificate in Computer Science from Saint Martin’s University and can apply credits earned toward a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science through Saint Martin’s. For veterans and transitioning service members interested in applying, visit Saint Martin’s University Extended Learning Division located in Stone Education Center, JBLM Main or call 253-964-7392 or email Applicants can learn more about the program on Saint Martin’s MSSA website.


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