Colleges don't promise jobs to their graduates, says Thomas Butler, a provost at Northern Virginia Community College.
But NOVA appeared to offer the next best thing last fall, when it launched an experimental fast-track course to turn college graduates with no formal technical training into computer programmers and network administrators.
The students were told they would have a chance at internships with some of the Washington area's leading information technology firms, a shortcut that could dramatically lessen the risks of a mid-career change in occupations.
That hope vanished midway through the six-month program.
Some information technology companies withdrew internship offers, according to NOVA President Belle S. Wheelan. Other internship offers the college had hoped to get never materialized. Internships that were offered at the end of the program were generally for entry-level help-desk positions at about $10 an hour, Butler said.
"There certainly was the expectation at the beginning of the program that [NOVA] would be actively involved in getting internships for us. That never really happened," said David Weisshaar, one of the students.
"The internship [opportunity] was one of the pivot points for me going in," said Patrick H. Judge, another student. Without that chance, he says, he would not have entered the program, which cost $2,100 in tuition.
In a fast-growing region where technology companies are desperate for skilled workers, the industry's apparent indifference to NOVA's pilot program disappointed college officials and frustrated the students. The same issue has hampered other training programs recently.
NOVA's experience revealed an industry still reluctant to take risks with unconventional students, particularly older, experienced workers, although internships appear plentiful for college and even high school students concentrating on technology.
"I think we're doing the easy things," Edward H. Bersoff, chairman of BTG Inc., a Fairfax information technology company, and chairman of the American Electronics Association, said in a recent interview. Companies still prefer to chase a very limited supply of new technology graduates and raid each other for experienced employees. "It really is hard to get people trained for our industry," he said, speaking of nontraditional applicants such as the students in the NOVA program.
"The companies have to take a few chances" on people they hire, said Mike Daniels, chairman of Network Solutions, a division of Scientific Applications International Corp. (SAIC).
NOVA did not disclose companies that turned down requests for internships.
There is "no purpose in identifying companies who, for very legitimate business reasons . . . had to withdraw their initial agreement to provide internships. I need you to trust that we are doing our best on your behalf," NOVA's Wheelan wrote to Judge.
SAIC didn't offer internships for the NOVA program, preferring to focus on a new training program it has started on its own for nontechnical recruits, said SAIC's employment manager, Devette Lancon.
If companies need to try harder, according to experts, would-be tech recruits need to be sure about the quality of the training they're signing up for.
In particular, employees in mid-career hoping to make a jump into complex technology fields need to be realistic about their own capabilities, other experts say.
The entryway is narrow for potentially high-paying jobs requiring advanced software and networking skills, SAIC's experience indicates.
When SAIC offered openings in its first intern class last year, it wound up with some 300 applicants. Of these, 100 were invited to take a test of mathematics aptitude, reasoning and spatial-relations skills.
Only 30 passed and half of these were admitted into the 10-week program. The 15 students, who have completed training and have since been hired at salaries in the $35,000 to $40,000 range, came from very different career backgrounds.
"They all had one thing in common," Lancon said. "They had been trying to get into info tech for at least a year and had been unable to do so because they did not have the appropriate degrees" and experience.
In NOVA's program -- where companies had no role in choosing the students -- the internships that were offered were at the bottom of the employment ladder.
Most were in the $10-an-hour range, Butler said, for entry-level work such as staffing computer help desks, not jobs that directly applied software and networking skills the students had sought to master. Four of the 15 students took the internships, but NOVA does not know how many of the graduates have been hired in technology positions since the program ended in May.
Marlene Zacharias left the NOVA program before completing it, returning to the secretarial position she had held before. "If you already have a $9 job, why leave for $9.50?" she said.
Not many mid-career employees would be willing or able to go back to the starting line in a new technology occupation at beginning wages, Judge said.
Butler says there was a misunderstanding about the internships, part of an inevitable learning process in a new program. NOVA is confident it has fixed such problems and plans to expand the program this fall, he said.
"We view [the internships] as education -- something to improve their skills. The students viewed these as jobs," he said.
"Some of the expectations [among students] were that they'd be taking high-paying jobs in information technology and they thought the internships should be there. There was a misunderstanding. . . . Partly it was what they wanted it to be," Butler said.
Zacharias, Weisshaar and Judge say the promise of high-level internships was explicit and was what made them choose the program in the first place.
When demand for tech workers is so high, it's common for training providers to oversell opportunities and for students to take on unrealistic expectations, experts say. "There's clearly some over-selling going on," says William Aspray, executive director of the Computing Research Association in Washington, speaking generally, not about the NOVA program in particular. SAIC's Daniels says it's particularly important for unconventional technology recruits not to let expectations run away from reality. "Yes, it's hard for mature workers. The only answer is, if people believe they're in a dead-end job, they're going to have to take a limited pay cut for two or three years" to get restarted in a technology position, he said. "It's one of the most difficult problems we face."
And yet, despite its start-up problems, the NOVA program worked for some of the graduates.
Diane Artemis felt she was stalled in a managerial position with a trade association after a decade and wanted to make the switch into technology. She left her job and went through more than $30,000 in savings while she took the NOVA course.
She, too, was angered when the higher-paying technology internships didn't materialize. "I still think it's a shame I didn't get hands-on experience in a skill that's in demand -- networking, Web page design -- jobs that would have a definite future and learning curve," she said.
But by passing the accelerated NOVA course, she received an associate's degree in information technology, and that made a difference.
"Just having those skills on my resume, and the degree, made the phone ring," she said. She recently accepted a position as a senior business process engineer with a government contractor, working on a project reorganizing a federal agency's operations. Her salary is in the mid-$60,000s, with considerable upside potential, she said.
Weisshaar, 27, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology, had worked at various jobs, from legal intern to a waiter in a pizza restaurant, while paying down his student loans. The NOVA program didn't lead directly to a technology job. But through a friend, he got an interview with UUNet, MCI WorldCom Inc.'s Internet division. The associate's degree helped him get an entry-level job as a help-desk technician earning about $31,000 a year, he said.
"It's a new field. I still have a sense that I'm more suited to things in the liberal arts and social sciences. But right now, this is where the money is. I've been able to pay some bills, and I'll give it a shot. It's certainly better than waiting tables."
CAPTION: Like other students, Diane Artemis was angered by the disappearance of internships, but she says the NOVA course did help her into a better career.