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August 10, 2017
In The News

Plunging his hand into an opened computer chassis, Vichon Ward sorted through a mess of colorful cables, fans and motherboards. The 28-year-old served eight years as a mechanic in the Air Force, repairing massive jet engines at military bases around the world — but before starting a tech training course here last month, he had never seen the inside of a computer.

“I’ve fixed planes my whole life,” said Ward, pulling out a hard drive. “This is brand new.”

Like Ward, many military veterans coming home to the Bay Area are looking to get into the booming tech industry. That means more demand for programs that teach students everything from repairing laptops to setting up a network.

But most short-term tech training programs, like the introductory 14-week course Ward is taking, aren’t eligible for funding from the G.I. Bill, the landmark federal legislation that guarantees free education for most veterans. That money typically goes to accredited colleges, and it’s difficult for nontraditional education programs to get certified.

A new bill sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents Fremont and part of Silicon Valley, is aiming to change that. The bill, which passed both houses of Congress unanimously in the last two weeks and is now awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, would launch a five-year pilot program helping tech training courses get G.I. Bill funding more easily.

“These are the ways you’re going to get people jobs,” Khanna said in an interview. “These types of skills might be more beneficial in getting a good job than two years of college or even four years of college.”

If it becomes law, the bill would mean more funding for programs like NPower, which serves Ward and about 200 other Bay Area students every year. The nonprofit offers free eight- and 14-week courses in the basics of computer hardware and software as well as more advanced network administration. Students prepare for crucial certification tests and get placed in internships at local tech companies.

The program, which costs between $6,000 and $10,000 per student, is supported by foundations and grants and doesn’t charge the veteran participants. But getting G.I. Bill funding would enable NPower to serve many more veterans, said Dann Bergman, the program’s director in the Bay Area. Currently, almost every class in the region is full.

“This country doesn’t do enough to pay our veterans back,” said Bergman, a former military contractor. “We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.”

Khanna’s bill would also let veterans get housing stipends to offset their living expenses while they’re taking a training course. Some students at NPower drop out halfway through a course to take minimum-wage jobs because they can’t afford not working — even if it means giving up on the possibility of a $50,000- or $60,000-a-year salary after graduating. A few students in the classes are homeless.

Ward, who grew up in Fresno and joined the Air Force right out of high school, said he had very little computer experience before taking the NPower class. “It was really scary” when he first cracked open a PC, he said with a laugh.

But after a few weeks in his class at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in San Jose — where students take apart and put together the same computers they use to take online tests — he’s getting used to it. He’s planning to go into tech, and his dream job is working at Google.

Courses like this have made a big improvement in the job prospects of vets like Khiem Doan, a soft-spoken Navy vet who lives in Milpitas. He served active duty for five years, working on aircraft carriers and being stationed in Iraq, where he was shot and suffered a back injury, he said.

When Doan, who’s currently in the Navy Reserves, got home from his tour of duty, he applied for several tech jobs — and got rejected because he didn’t have enough experience. An eight-week NPower course in network engineering earlier this year was enough of a résumé-booster for him to get an IT job at a gas company in Fremont.

“At first it was boring, but as I learned how it works, I found I love it,” Doan said. “The more hands-on experience I have, the more valuable I am.”

The stereotypical veteran doesn’t exactly match the image of a hoodie-wearing, Soylent-chugging tech worker, but advocates say vets are well matched for today’s tech jobs. During their tours of duty, most vets end up playing a wide array of roles in different places around the world. That gives them the experience of learning on their feet that’s valued in the tech world, said Mike Slagh, the CEO of Shift, a San Francisco company that connects veterans to jobs.

“That skill of getting up to speed quickly when thrown onto new projects is really helpful,” Slagh said. “They’re a resilient, adaptable, flexible workforce.”

Many veterans also already have security clearances necessary for tech companies that contract with the government on national security-related projects.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s tech giants are actively working to recruit more veterans. Gabriel Flores, a tattooed network engineer at Airbnb, stopped by an NPower class in Alameda last week to talk about working for the startup. He shared war stories of crashing databases, explained the technologies he used, and joked about the free food the company gives its employees.

“Opening our doors and recruiting and retaining employees who have been left out of tech for too long is one of our top priorities,” said Jasmine Mora, an Airbnb spokeswoman. “Hiring the men and women who have taken on challenges that most of us could never imagine is good for our company and our community.”

The tech funding pilot program, which was spearheaded by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and had Khanna as its lead Democratic sponsor, was included as part of a larger G.I. Bill expansion. It was the first major legislation passed by Khanna, who took office in January.

Its unanimous passage was a rare moment of bipartisanship in a deeply divided Congress. When McCarthy first proposed it earlier this year, however, no other Democrat supported it, Khanna said. He said he had to overcome worries in the Democratic caucus that the bill would fund for-profit colleges with spotty records.

If the pilot program goes well, it could become permanent. “Our old conception of what job preparation is necessary (for veterans) is outdated,” Khanna said. “This is reorienting the G.I. Bill for the 21st century.”