P-TECH a Lesson in Closing High-Tech Skills Gap

IBM’s academic model helps high schoolers secure two-year degrees.

By Sarah Fister Gale


hen Azzaria Douglas was just 16 years old, she secured an internship with the IBM Watson analytics department in Chicago, where she managed data and built websites. By 18, she had already completed a two-year applied science degree in web development and landed a full-time job offer with IBM.

Douglas isn’t a prodigy. She’s one of thousands of students taking part in P-TECH, Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, across the country.

P-TECH is an accelerated curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. The coursework is specifically designed to get high school students ready for the workplace faster so they can take on hard-to-fill midlevel tech jobs. “It was an amazing opportunity,” Douglas said. “It showed me the link between school and the workplace and helped me think about what I was going to do in the future.”

Azzaria Douglas

P-TECH was originally conceived by leaders at IBM in 2010 as a solution to the growing tech-skills gap in the marketplace.

Some reports estimate 500,000 tech jobs go unfilled each year, creating lost revenue for companies across many industries. At the same time, they recognized that many high school students struggle to find a career path, or to secure funds to pursue a college education. “P-TECH brings these two challenges together,” said Grace Suh, IBM’s director for corporate citizenship.

Suh noted that many of today’s midlevel tech jobs that are challenging for organizations to fill require a two-year college degree. The P-TECH schools help to create that talent pool in the community, she said.

Working in partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York at Armonk, New York-based IBM opened the first P-TECH school in Brooklyn in 2011 and eight more schools in other communities where they have offices. They also extended their model to other companies, and many have stepped up. In seven years, more than 90 P-TECH schools have been launched with the support of more than 400 companies including SAP, Kaiser Permanente and Johns Hopkins University. “It was designed to be replicated,” Suh said.

While every school is unique, the model combines free public high school with free community college courses, allowing students to graduate in six years or less with an associate degree in an in-demand skill identified by the community. Though these schools offer more than just STEM courses, according to Suh, the entire program is built around preparing students for the workplace.

Teachers explore issues around leadership and workplace life.

After choosing an academic track linked to one of the offered degree programs, students are paired with a mentor who works for their corporate sponsor, receive opportunities for internships with that company and get to participate in hackathons, corporate field trips and other events.

“We tie everything that happens in the classroom to the real world,” said Karen Amaker, director of Norwalk Early College Academy, a P-TECH school in Connecticut that offers degrees in software engineering, mobile programming and web development. Daily coursework and class projects mimic workplace activities, and teachers explore issues around leadership, professional ethics and workplace life in their lectures. “By their fourth year they have the skills to be in the workplace,” Amaker said.

P-TECH mentors and proteges in New York.

They also have the connections. When P-TECH students graduate they are first in line to apply for jobs with their sponsor company and can rely on their mentor and internship experiences to land their first position. Douglas said that her internship manager recommended her for a role in another department, which helped her land the job. “She appreciated my work and reached out on my behalf,” Douglas said.

Join the Movement

IBM hopes more companies will embrace the P-TECH model and offer a guidebook and support in getting started.

She noted that sponsoring a P-TECH school does not require significant financial investment because they are operated and funded as public schools. However, being a sponsor does require substantial commitment of time and expertise. Employers are expected to help map the curriculum to in-demand skills in the community, then once the school opens they need to provide mentors, internship opportunities, in-class speakers, classroom support and interview opportunities for new grads.

“It’s a huge source of pride for our employees to be a part of this,” Suh said.

It’s also appears to be a good business decision. While IBM conceived P-TECH as a corporate citizenship program it has always had a clear business purpose — create a pipeline of young candidates with in-demand technical skills who are ready to enter the workforce.

“It’s a purpose that a lot of other companies can get behind,” Suh said.