Red Ventures training effort bypasses college – and college costs

Red Ventures is providing job skills training to high school graduates Katherine Juarez and Celio Reyes.
Red Ventures is providing job skills training to high school graduates Katherine Juarez and Celio Reyes. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Celio Reyes of Charlotte is 19, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who worked as a waiter last year, determined to earn the thousands of dollars required to pay for a college education at out-of-state tuition rates.

That plan would have taken him years to accomplish, but Reyes got a boost recently from an experimental program at Red Ventures called Code2Hire. The local tech company is helping a small group of top high school graduates from low-income families get free job skills training.

As a result, Reyes is still a teen but has a full-time job making about $50,000 a year as a junior web designer at one of the region’s fastest-growing tech companies. He’s up for a raise, too, once he passes the one-year mark with the company.

Education experts say Code2Hire is part of a national trend to revive old-fashioned apprenticeships to train specialized employees for high tech industries. However, Code2Hire is seen as an innovation because applicants don’t have to be in high school or college.

The program is taking applications for its next session, promising to train and hire as many as 12 students to be junior web developers. Candidates must be from low-income homes and have graduated from high school no later than July 2015.

Citizenship is not required, in keeping with Red Ventures’ ongoing effort to help high-performing children of undocumented immigrant families. Participants are expected to be able to remain in the United States as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that began in 2012.

“I feel like I’m living a dream every time I walk through the halls of Red Ventures,” said Reyes, who graduated in 2014 from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte and is protected under DACA.

“My dad installs industrial air conditioning and my mom works in a hotel. They can’t afford college, but my dad wanted me to go. Before he came to this country, he was a microbiologist. But he lost (accreditation) when we came here in 2003.”

Code2Hire kicked off last summer as an experiment with eight students fresh out of local high schools. Four were hired with pay in the $50,000 range at Red Ventures, an Internet marketing firm just south of the state line, in northern Lancaster County.

Students in the program are not paid during their 12-to-15 hours of training per week, but Red Ventures covers all costs associated with the curriculum.

Ric Elias, CEO and co-founder of Red Ventures, said part of his motivation is to show that college degrees shouldn’t be required to succeed in America.

“The four students we hired are all doing incredibly well and they are earning $50,000 a year, rather than accumulating $50,000 a year in debt for college,” Elias said.

“We’re doing something great for kids in the community. But we’re also challenging educational institutions to change. Universities play an important role, but I don’t think spending $100,000 to $200,000 for a degree makes sense for everybody.”

Bill Anderson of MeckEd, a public school advocacy group, said Charlotte has a program called Apprenticeship 2000, which helps students enrolled in high school get job experience at the Charlotte affiliates of companies like Siemens, Chiron and Max Daetwyler Corp.

“This is the wave of the future. ... There needs to be post-secondary education for all students, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a four-year degree for all students,” Anderson said.

“What Red Ventures is doing is terrific. This is about their employee pipeline and developing a workforce of the future. It’s all part of a change taking place in the country.”

Colin Mutter, Red Venture’s vice president of engineering, said the company is growing at about 20 percent a year and has a constant need for employees schooled in the nation’s most prevalent technology language.

Candidates for Code2Hire don’t necessarily need to be at the top of their class, Mutter said, but they do need a passion for technology. Red Ventures is also looking for applicants who are energetic, driven and naturally curious, he said.

“Those characteristics will take you far in any workplace,” Mutter said.

Code2Hire is the second program created by Red Ventures to help local high school grads. The other, Golden Door Scholars, is only for undocumented high school students who excelled academically but are denied in-state college tuition rates because of their immigration status.

The program, which provides scholarships to partner universities, is largely funded with donations from Elias, a native of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory.

Katherine Juarez, 19, is another 2014 Phillip O. Berry grad who made it into the Code2Hire last year. Juarez, a native of El Salvador, was salutatorian of her class and has also been accepted into the Golden Door Scholars program for a scholarship.

She intends to start at Wake Forest University in the fall for a career as a surgical oncologist. If successful, she’ll be the first person in her family to graduate from college, she says. Her parents both work in local factories.

“I count my blessings every day,” said Juarez, whose two sisters work as cashiers in a grocery store and restaurant.

“So many things could have gone wrong, but my passion for learning pushed me through. I made it a goal not to be shut out of school or jobs because I was undocumented. My family was skeptical at first. Now, they’re impressed. ”

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Interested students can review eligibility guidelines and apply at www.code2hire.org by May 11.

Applications are being accepted for students who will graduate high school in the Charlotte metro area on or before July 2015.