City students are finding a path to middle-skill jobs

Angel Fernandes of Dorchester and an alumnus of BFIT was one of the featured speakers at an event last week to highlight the institute's program, which prepared him for a career in the healthcare information technology sector. Photo courtesy Paul Marotta

Mayor Martin Walsh, Gov. Charlie Baker, and dozens of Boston-area business leaders were on hand last week at “Get on the Inside Track,” a networking event at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) in the South End that provided an opportunity for employers to connect with current students and alumni from the Franklin Institute.

The event also served as a platform for a discussion about what several speakers referred to as “the skills gap” – the hole in the hiring environment where a growing percentage of young graduates are finding that they are underprepared or unqualified for skilled jobs in fields like tech, engineering, and construction.

According to a 2015 study by the National Skills Coalition, the demand for middle-skill jobs, which, typically, require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree –far outpaces the number of qualified job applicants. Along with the Lewis Family Foundation, a youth leadership non-profit that cosponsored the event, The Franklin Institute tackles this disparity by offering affordable career training to a diverse student body, roughly three quarters of which are students of color.

Many come from neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, where there are higher rates of unemployment compared to the rest of the city.

Baker, who touted the roughly $50 million his administration has poured into technical and vocational schools like BFIT over the past four years, described the institute as “a jewel in the crown of educational institutions in the Commonwealth.”

Walsh, a native of Savin Hill, said at the event that he identified with the values of the school, which he described as “blue collar,” noting that he and City Councillor Frank Baker “grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of our friends didn’t have pathways to college, and if we had known about this school back in the day it would have changed a whole bunch of future outlooks for a lot of young people who didn’t have that opportunity.

“I didn’t take a normal pathway to college,” the mayor added. “A lot of you know the story. I went to college for a little while, I dropped out, and then came back to school later in life. And I find it’s so important for us today to talk about the importance of the diversity of our colleges in the city of Boston.”

Another man in the room who didn’t take a normal pathway to college was Angel Fernandes, the BFIT alumnus and keynote speaker for the evening.

The 27-year-old Fernandes grew up in a Cape Verdean household near Bowdoin Street, spending his formative years as a role model for his five younger siblings. After graduating from BC High, he attended Wentworth College for a year before dropping out and entering what he called “a dark period” in his life.

In his talk, he recalled growing up with a passion for technology that was reignited when he heard about the Franklin Institute at an informational session in 2011. That passion blossomed into a career building and maintaining the electronic health records system at Partners Healthcare. It is a role, he said, that he earned with the help of the Franklin Institute, which prepared him for a career in the healthcare information technology sector.

“By the time I graduated from the program in the summer of 2015, I had already had experience in the field from three separate internships that were interwoven with the curriculum prior to my graduation,” he said.

This vital on-the-job experience is one of the main draws at the institute, according to many students. For Lillia Sakher, a 30-year-old construction management student from Algeria, choosing BFIT meant access to the school’s construction mentor program, which placed her directly in the field, thanks to an internship with Walsh Brothers, Inc., that offered daily on-site training. Sakher now works part time with Walsh Brothers.

“What I like from [BFIT faculty] is that they are very open for foreign people,” said Sakher, who has degrees in construction management from universities in Algeria and France. “They understand that foreign people like me have background, have the knowledge, they just need the language.”

Ben St. Cyr, a 20-year-old sophomore from Gloucester, said that the employment opportunities opened up by the Franklin Institute separate it from other four-year colleges:

“I’d say one of the best things about this place is, you come in here, you may not know the trade or the degree you’re pursuing, but no matter what you do, [with] all the effort you put into this, you will find a job.”

Some 94 percent of outgoing BFIT students are either placed at a full-time job or pursue additional education within six months of graduating. And those who do get jobs are paid competitively, with yearly salaries starting at around $40,000.

This stability played a big factor in convincing Lorenzo Harper, a graduate as of May, that the institute was the place for him. Now 24, he grew up near Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester with his older brother and his mother, an immigrant from St. Kitts. As a teenager, he watched his brother become successful after studying electrical technology at BFIT and landing a job with Snyder Electric.

“After seeing how quickly he got on his feet – getting a car, getting a house and starting his family –that gave me more interest in getting a degree,” said Harper, currently an assistant project manager at Commodore Builders, where he says he has adjusted quickly thanks to BFIT’s “hands-on” approach.

“You have teachers, professors who actually worked in the field,” he explained. “So they’re not gonna teach you just what’s in the book...they bring their personal experiences into the classrooms.”

One of Harper’s professors, Leslie Tuplin, graduated from BFIT with a degree in construction management and went on to work on the Big Dig before returning to the school to teach. Her extensive work experience makes it easy to relate classroom ideas to concrete workplace situations.
“One of the things that really works well is as we’re starting to go through the technical formulas in the book, I try to think, well, what is that applicable to?” she said.

For her, the institute’s location, in the heart of Boston’s building boom, is key.

“BFIT being an urban school, and especially with the number of projects that are going on in Boston, we don’t have to say, ‘Let’s get on a bus and go somewhere and look at a job site.’ We can say, ‘Oh, let’s get a cup of coffee and go down the street and see what’s going on.’”

Anthony Benoit, president of the Franklin Institute, says this mix of classroom and hands-on learning results in a unique, more dynamic educational experience.

“Almost everybody learns better if they can put what they’re learning into a meaningful context – something that’s real to them,” he said. “Our academic systems in the US tend to prioritize abstract learning over practical learning. And that really does a disservice for most learners.”
Benoit said he has seen countless cases of students who do not necessarily think of themselves as great scholars yet they excel at Benjamin Franklin, motivated by the practical, real world opportunities it offers.

“The graduates of Benjamin Franklin take jobs where they’re running the infrastructure of all sorts –transportation, manufacturing, building – and, you know, that’s all around us in an urban environment,” said Benoit. “So it’s exciting; they become the people who are really running the city.”