New Port Morris center trains for jobs in tech sector

Ahmed Al Ghazali, a student at the Cognizant Bronx Training Center.  Photo: Carmen Reinicke

Cognizant aims to prepare 650 for the work force in 18 months

From the sidewalk, you’d never guess that 804 East 138th Street is an office. It’s in an industrial part of Port Morris, a block west of the Bruckner expressway. Sabrett is across the street, marked by a large hot dog logo. But once inside, the midcentury inspired furniture, bright accents, lockers, and a Russell Simmons quote that takes up an entire wall are distinctly corporate.

The office is now Cognizant’s Bronx Training center, which officially opened on Sept. 18. It offers a training program called Platform, in partnernship with Per Scholas, the nearby education nonprofit which trains people for good-paying jobs in technology. The program is Cognizant’s solution to the skills gap—technical roles with specific skillsets that companies have a hard time filling. Cognizant will train 650 people in the South Bronx over the next 18 months and hire 350.

According to the National Skills Coalition, an organization dedicated to uplifting American workers, 50 percent of jobs open in New York are ‘middle-skill,’ jobs that require high school but not college, but only 38 percent of workers are trained at that level.

“We were struggling to find the tech skills required in the market at the price point we can afford,” said Eric Westphal, 38, Senior Director of Global Corporate Affairs at Cognizant. “We were looking at ways to tap in to folks that have the aptitude we need and developing a focused curriculum based on the job requirements,” Westphal said.

Per Scholas was an obvious partner because it’s been training alternative workforces for 20 years and had office space in the South Bronx, a community with non-traditional talent. Cognizant took the space and launched the $6 million program which is supported in part by Empire State Development, with $2 million in performance based tax credits through the Excelsior Jobs program. By training more resources than they will hire, Cognizant hopes to help diversify the tech industry while lending the local economy a boost, said Michelle Pularo, 45, Chief Administrative Officer at Per Scholas.

Platform currently offers two 10-15 week courses in quality engineering and application support management. They are free for students and highly selective. Platform requires prior IT experience, and proficiency in at least one coding language. The program is full time, so the admissions team looks for students that can commit to the rigorous schedule, said Annie Norbeck, 38, Managing Director of Social Ventures at Per Scholas. Jake McIntosh, Per Scholas’ Manager of Marketing and Events, added that students come from all over the tristate area and have a variety of backgrounds.

One student, Ahmed Al Ghazali, 33, moved to Brooklyn five years ago from Yemen, where he worked in IT. Even though he had previous experience and a college degree, he struggled to find a tech job in New York.

He found out about Platform through Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees succeed in professional careers in the US. He said Platform is different than other courses he has taken because it was run by a company that had jobs to fill and taught soft skills in addition to technical skills.

“This was 80% of the challenge for me,” said Ghazali. “Questions like ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years’ seem so simple, but I didn’t know how to answer!”

Ghazali was in the first class of 15 that graduated in early November, and one of 11 from the class hired by Cognizant in roles that earn upwards of $50,000 a year, according to Glassdoor, an online job and recruiting site. Cognizant will update Platform as hiring needs shift. A third course in data analysis will start in 2018.

Efforts to connect other tech initiatives like Per Scholas’ core programs, which require little to no tech experience, and Platform are also being developed.

“One of the things we are focused on is making investments in programs that teach the digital foundation to make [Platform] a possibility,” said Westphal.

Per Scholas is on board.

“We are always modifying, iterating, and innovating,” said Norbeck. “We would love to have a bridge program.”