Alternative Pathways to Tech Careers Increase Diversity—and Innovation
NI is changing the faces of engineering through paid apprenticeships and internships for aspiring tech professionals from historically underrepresented groups.
After 18 years working as a pharmacy technician, James Fladger had almost everything he needed to change careers. He had intelligence, grit, and determination, and an online Google IT Support Certificate course in his sights. The major thing missing? Reliable Wi-Fi access.
“I was living in my car with my dog at the time [November 2020]. There’s COVID and everything’s locked down—gyms, coffee shops. I’m here trying to change my life and there’s nowhere to go inside and plug in or get a signal,” said Fladger.
Fladger’s old friend, Clifford Dukes, gave him a mobile hotspot to connect him to the Internet—and new career opportunities. Dukes is the chief operating officer at Austin Urban Technology Movement (AUTM), an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit whose mission is to bridge the gap between the Black and Hispanic communities and the technology industry through job placement, career development, and networking opportunities.
AUTM partners with businesses, organizations, institutions, and government entities to help the Black and Latinx communities get trained to enter and thrive in the tech industry, and radically change their incomes and build their careers.
AUTM focuses on helping people like James (adults in the workforce who want to transition into the tech industry) by meeting them where they are. The organization assesses their unique strengths and creates a custom employment pathway centered around top industry-aligned coding and certification courses, along with mentoring and on-the-job training. AUTM also provides stipends and technology access to those in need, as it did with Fladger.
“James started down one career path and discovered it wasn’t right for him. Instead of letting the barriers of society prevent him from advancing his career, he embodied our belief that everyone should have access to training who wants it,” said Michael Ward Jr., president and CEO of AUTM.
That access is particularly important for Black and Latinx individuals, who are severely underrepresented in the technology industry due to a lack of exposure, training, and experience. Bringing more tech jobs—which pay $125,000, on average—to Black and Latinx communities will close racial wealth gaps and create a virtuous cycle in which more and more people of color can see themselves in these jobs.
AUTM provides training not only in technical skills but also soft skills such as presenting and interviewing.
Fladger has encountered—and pushed past—many barriers to success in his life. He says his mother was pressured by some family members to give him up because he was half Black. He spent his childhood living with his father, whose frequent moves to chase job opportunities led to Fladger’s attending 15 different schools across New Jersey. Fladger was a precocious child, always asking deep questions about the meaning of life as others made small talk. But all the school changes made it nearly impossible for him to find a secure foothold for his potential.
When Fladger was 17, his father died. James enlisted in the Air Force, which stationed him in Fairfield, California, in a role as a pharmacy technician. Military life taught him discipline, leadership skills, and teamwork.
“In the military, it’s not about you. It’s about what’s best for the team. That’s something I’ve taken into the civilian sector, working with others to resolve work situations,” said Fladger.
Adds Dukes, “James and other veterans bring a lot of unique skills to the workforce. They’re always on time, fastidious, and able to assess and adapt to difficult situations and organizational structures.”
After four years in the Air Force, Fladger continued working as a pharmacy tech at hospitals. While he was able to work at top institutions such as Stanford University, he never enjoyed pharmacy work or felt it was a fit for his strengths and interests.
After 18 years working as a pharmacy technician, James Fladger is training to succeed in a tech industry career.
“It is monotonous work but also really stressful, because the margin for error is so small and every day someone’s life is in your hands. It was a very intense environment,” said Fladger.
Fladger eventually reached the highest level of his career he could without additional training, as well as a personal low point: After some financial setbacks, he lived in his car for nearly five years, while working full-time.
He reached out to Dukes, who told him about AUTM’s programs and eventually offered him Internet access, a computer, and a place to stay for a month. As James earned his Google IT Support Certificate and then moved on to Python, Java, and data analysis, he knew he’d found his calling.
“It just struck home: This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Coding fits the way my mind works. I absolutely love being able to have a problem that’s bothering everyone and trying to solve it so we can all be at peace and be happy,” said Fladger.
This wasn’t the first time Dukes recognized and empowered Fladger’s potential. The two originally met when a teenaged Fladger was sent to an alternative high school where Dukes was working. Dukes saw that Fladger was an extremely intelligent kid who was caught in systems that were not challenging or guiding him well. Dukes gave him his first book, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, which sparked his lifelong love of reading and philosophy (his favorite author is Socrates).
AUTM Chief Operating Officer Clifford Dukes joins James Fladger on a study break.
“I fell in love with reading because it connected me to people pondering the same questions I’m pondering, who dedicated their whole lives to figuring them out. I didn’t have access to that kind of intellectual stimulation with the people around me,” said Fladger.
To help him connect with tech industry professionals and jobs, AUTM’s team helped Fladger create his first LinkedIn page and coached him on interviewing. He brought the same drive to interviewing that he brought to his coding classes, creating an “Interview Bible” of potential questions and answers. And his AUTM stipend allowed him to move in with a friend and continue his studies at home.
In October 2021, his hard work paid off. He received his first tech job offer: A platform technician role at a Fortune 50 company. He is incredibly excited about the role. Although he sees himself potentially in network administration or DevOps one day, he’s taking his journey one step at a time.
“I’ve known a lot of poverty, pain, and suffering in my life,” said Fladger. “Through my struggle, I’ve learned to focus on the present—the secret of life is to be happy now.”
Since its founding in 2016, AUTM has helped 150 people get the resources they need to enter and thrive in the tech industry, radically change their income, and build a career. The organization is looking to expand its apprenticeship programs, with help from corporate partners such as NI. Through its work with Fladger, AUTM also has formed a partnership with the Texas Veterans Commission to explore more opportunities to serve veterans.
“AUTM is just getting started with our awareness-to-employment workforce development program. As we build more partnerships and create additional career pathways, we will not only increase diversity in tech, but also eliminate the digital divide and technology skills gap across the industry,” said Ward Jr.
AUTM CEO Michael Ward, Jr. is diversifying the tech ecosystem through strategic partnerships with companies such as NI, Google, and Microsoft.
As part of our $3.4 million commitment to advancing diversity in STEM education, NI has awarded Austin Urban Technology Movement a grant of $100,000 per year for the next four years. We look forward to helping more people like James enter technical fields, both at NI and other companies. Learn more about AUTM’s mission and NI’s commitment to Changing the Faces of Engineering.