Participants in a tech training program sit at a rectangular table.
Participants in an AMPED tech training program in Louisville listen to a presentation. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Shaina Davis, 27, worked the night shift at a fast food restaurant when a friend persuaded her to enroll in a tech training program at the local nonprofit AMPED.

She has graduated from the program and now works part-time for AMPED and as a sales rep for a phone company, earning more money. She also works the day shift, giving her more time with her children.

Jay Muhammad, 44, joined the program after working in warehouses for much of his adult life. He has yet to complete the training but already has received job offers and runs a freelance web design company. He hopes to soon find a full-time tech-related job, in part to teach his children about the importance of education.

And Justin Reagan, 24, joined the program because he loves working on and fixing computers, but he lacks official certifications that will make it easier for him to find work. Reagan is visually impaired and lives off Social Security benefits, but he said he’d rather earn a living fixing computers.

Muhammad and Reagan on a recent Tuesday evening sat at computers on the second floor of the Shelby Park Community Center on Oak Street, working toward a certification that would enable them to work at an IT help desk. They expect to be finished in early July.

Reagan plans to return two weeks later for another 12-week course to become certified as an entry-level computer technician.

Before students are accepted into the program, they are interviewed and they have to fill out a survey, primarily so that AMPED staff can determine whether they can commit to the program, said Program Manager Monica Stewart. While people from anywhere in Louisville an apply, Stewart said AMPED focuses on Russell, Shelby and Smoketown neighborhoods.

A participant in AMPED's tech training program gestures as an instructor listens
A participant in AMPED’s tech training in Louisville gestures as Program Manager Monica Stewart listens and another participant listens. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Training consists of reading, videos, in-class labs and hands-on activities that require the students to open personal computers, remove components such as the graphics card or hard drive, and then put the machines back together.

Students learn about the fundamentals of software and hardware, IP addresses, administrative settings and other computer and network terms, said Kweku Martin, 27, a software developer and technical instructor with AMPED.

AMPED pays for the tests that award the students with industry certifications, which shows employers that they have the skills required for the job, as well as the dedication to finish a project.

“The key is just to get them enough skills to get their foot in the door,” Martin told Insider.

Once the students have the certifications, they can work at businesses including computer repair shops or computer help desks, where people call in when their PC has crashed or is otherwise malfunctioning.

AMPED has built relationships with Louisville businesses including Humana to ease the graduates’ transition into a job. And even after graduation, AMPED provides its former students with support to help them overcome challenges that may otherwise prevent them from retaining their jobs.

“Once you’ve been a student, you become part of a family,” Stewart said.

Tech training expansion

While AMPED is primarily a free youth music program, it also has been providing tech training to place local adults in high-paying jobs. That aspect of its programming will increase as a result of a recently announced $3 million JPMorgan grant, which AMPED will share with other local organizations, including Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, KentuckianaWorks and Metro United Way.

A portrait of Dave Christopher
Dave Christopher

AMPED Founder and CEO Dave Christopher said many low-income residents don’t just lack computers, but they might even fear technology, which makes accessing tech training difficult, even disregarding the cost to acquire such skills.

The organization, which has helped 25 families per year through the program, funded by a National Center for Families Learning Grant, plans to expand its outreach to 300 people over the next three years, providing free training and connecting low-income residents with local technology companies to land good jobs.

Christopher said the additional money from JPMorgan will allow AMPED to hire more instructors, acquire more software licenses, increase the number of instructional days and possibly triple the current number of students.

He said AMPED also plans to deepen its relationships with KentuckianaWorks, the region’s workforce development board, local employers and other tech training programs, such as Code Louisville.

JPMorgan provided the grant as part of its five-year, $500 million Advancing Cities Challenge, which aims to expand opportunities “for those being left behind in today’s economy,” CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon wrote in a letter to shareholders.

Employers across the nation are struggling to find qualified workers, from local restaurants to manufacturers and tech giants.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said this month that some manufacturers reported that the shortage of workers has worsened. One contact in St. Louis told the Fed that “many employees left the firm before completing their first week in their new job.”

And in the tech sector, two-thirds of chief information officers said in a survey that the skills shortage is dampening growth.

To overcome labor shortages, employers have changed their recruiting strategies, improved pay and benefits, but they’ve also increasingly created in-house training programs and partnerships with local schools. Governments and nonprofits, too, are stepping up, by offering new skills training and job placement programs or by increasing their capacity.

Metro United Way told Insider via email that AMPED is expected to receive $40,000 in the first year, through March 2020, and $92,500 in the two subsequent years, with the initial allocation to be made in the fall.

Metro United Way also said that it would track, among other things, how many individuals complete the tech training, how many are placed in jobs that pay a living wage and how many can build assets in a savings account.

‘Gave me hope again’

A portrait of Shaina Davis
Shaina Davis

Davis of Louisville told Insider that she had worked in a fast-food restaurant for more than two years, as cashier, in the kitchen and performing other duties when a friend told her about AMPED’s tech training.

She worked at the restaurant from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., which, she said, made it difficult to spend much time with her four children and get enough sleep. She also frequently covered weekend shifts.

“I was always tired,” she said.

Now she has more free time and gets to spend more time with her children, in addition to earning significantly more money.

Beyond technical aspects of the program, Davis said she also learned about basics of word processing and spreadsheets, how to communicate properly via email and life skills such as budgeting, setting goals and spending money on needs first — and “wants” only occasionally.

Davis said she learned “deciding on what’s important and what’s less important.”

She also said that her computer repair skills have come in handy outside of work, as she has helped family members with hardware problems.

David said she plans to continue to learn and eventually start a web design business.

Program participants also engage in community improvement activities. On Saturday morning, they plan to put together care packages — water, bread, fruit, meat, cheese, hygiene items — for the homeless. The plan to distribute the packages starting at 11 a.m. at Wayside Christian Mission. This week, the group got together to discuss the logistics of the operation.

A photo of Justin Reagan working on a laptop
Justin Reagan works on a laptop. | Courtesy of the Kentucky Career Center

Reagan, 24, said he joined the program because he loves fixing computers.

His room is a mess of cables and computer components, he said, including ram sticks, flash and hard drives.

When he was 4, Reagan was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. He uses a screen reader to read websites and play card and board games, such as Monopoly, Uno and Go Fish, on the computer against other visually impaired players.

He took classes toward a degree in IT programming at Volunteer State Community College in Nashville but didn’t finish and moved to Louisville to find a job. The Charles W. McDowell Rehabilitation Center is helping Reagan live more independently. His family lives in Florida.

He already has completed a 12-week course at AMPED and hopes to complete two more to get an A+ certification to eventually land a full-time job.

“That will help me greatly,” he said.

Muhammad, the 44-year-old father of four from Louisville, said that he has always had a passion for information technology, but until recently had never pursued a career in the field.

As a teenager, he got involved with street gangs, sold drugs and spent stints in prison in his 20s, he said. He worked in warehouses for much of his adult life but decided to go to college when he was 40. He had to continue to work to help take care of the children but completed a coding bootcamp at Code Louisville and enrolled at Jefferson County Technical College, later switching to the University of Louisville to learn about web development.

But work, studying and family got to be too much, he said, so he dropped out in his junior year of college. It was a tough decision, he said. He wanted to get his degree, in part to get a better job — but also to serve as a role model for his children.

A portrait of Jay Muhammad
Jay Muhammad

Muhammad said he wants his children to know that they don’t have to be in the streets, but instead can get an education and live life right.

He said he had almost given up hope when he heard about AMPED from his brother-in-law, who served as a mentor in the program and works as a network administrator at Humana. Muhammad had done freelance work designing websites, but didn’t know much about computer hardware and thought the AMPED training might put him back on a path to a better career.

His background knowledge allowed him to skip some of the training. He soon acquired his A+ certification. He even was offered a help desk job and likely would have gotten a job had it not been for his criminal record. He said he has to wait another year before that record is expunged and he can find a job more easily.

Muhammad continues to take classes at AMPED to refresh some of his knowledge and keep his skills sharp. He said the AMPED tech training program has done much more than equip him with more skills.

“It gave me hope again,” he said. “It helped save my life.”

Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.