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A Workplace Love Story (about Consulting)

An innovative program trains high school graduates and veterans for careers as consultants.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

What’s love got to do with consulting? Typically, not much—it’s usually a marriage of convenience where the qualified become even more qualified. The successful grow even more so. But there is a new consulting love story unfolding where the unqualified get qualified. And those for whom professional success seemed once out of reach find rewarding and robust careers.

This is a story about profound acts of kindness, dedication, and cleverness by a man named Dr. Art Langer and his team at Workforce Opportunity Services  (WOS), who help underserved young men and women gain access to educational and workplace opportunities they likely never dreamed possible.

Langer, a professor at Columbia University in New York, devoted five years to researching barriers to workplace literacy. During this time, he uncovered a treasure trove of highly capable but hidden talent that, to be mobilized, needs additional education, mentoring, and help in landing the “first job” so critical to launching a career.

Inspired to action, he founded WOS in 2005 with the mission to educate, train, and hire people “from underserved populations or those socially excluded from the mainstream, and to place them in companies as outsourced consultants.” The focus on consulting is key—it allows the program to meet the ever-changing labor demands of its partners while providing the flexibility students need to both work and further their education.

Langer devised an ingenious earn-as-you-learn, parallel approach to education and employment, jump-started with a 13-week semester in which high school graduates who have been identified through a prequalification program learn specific skills sought by WOS’s corporate partners (which include Johnson & Johnson, the Museum of Modern Art, and Prudential Financial).

Partners define the skills they need and commit to a number of consultants they will hire. WOS recruits the talent through community outreach and creates customized curricula with partner colleges and universities ranging from Columbia to the University of Texas at El Paso. Corporate partners pay WOS competitive consulting fees that the organization, in turn, uses to pay student-consultant wages, health insurance, and college tuition. Consulting fees pay for education that expands participants’ qualifications and future earning capacity, creating a virtuous cycle of capability, productivity, and self-esteem.

The approach is ingenious but has a lot of moving parts, with WOS serving as surrogate parents and matchmakers across its various constituencies:

  • WOS recruits corporate partners, helps them define the skills they need, and engages them to commit to hiring a “full class” of 8 to 30 students.
  • WOS builds relationships with high school principals and superintendents who help identify students with aptitude and motivation.
  • WOS creates educational alliances with universities and professors who host the six-week prequalification programs and tailor the coursework for the needs of the corporate partners.
  • WOS counsels each student-consultant to understand his or her unique circumstances and provides the practical support to help them fulfill school, work, and family responsibilities.

It’s hard to get hired at WOS. During the prequalification process, students are assessed on communication, logic, and behavioral skills, and only about one out of four applicants is accepted into the program. Those who make it take four classes over a 13-week term to learn job-specific technical knowledge and general writing, communications, and business acumen skills. At the end of the 13-week period, the student-consultants are placed into part-time positions with corporate partners. For the next 26 weeks, they work part-time and attend school two nights per week. At the end of the three terms, the students are awarded a certificate and start working full time. Many students continue to “earn and learn” toward their degrees.

More than 290 students have completed the program and are working with 20 corporate partners located in eight U.S. states and two cities in France. After a “try before you buy” period, the corporate partners have opted to convert 92 WOS consultants to employees. So far, 15 student-consultants have earned college degrees.

Although WOS specializes in “skilling up” recent high school graduates to work in IT positions, corporate partners call the shots. So, in response to partner requests, WOS now also recruits military veterans and has educated student-consultants to fulfill roles in call centers and healthcare processing. WOS is confident that it has a scalable model, with the ability to operate in a new location within a 90-day period. Over the next year, the company will operate in five additional U.S. states and is in discussions with corporate partners and NGOs about expanding its European operations.

It would have been much easier for Langer to stay on the sidelines, researching and teaching, but as is the case with entrepreneurs, his passions won out. Langer, who himself earned-while-he-learned through higher education over an 18-year period, loves his student-consultants and calls them his “kids.” But, he tells them that love isn’t enough. His job is to give them “critical love.” WOS expects the best from its students—to be totally committed and persevere through a tough and intense program. One of their former student-consultants is now employed by Goldman Sachs and attending NYU. When WOS reached out to find out how things were going, the student-employee responded, “It’s a lot easier than WOS.”

This is my kind of love story. It works on so many levels. It’s innovative. It helps right a wrong. It strengthens individuals, businesses, and communities. And it resonates with our common and shared need to join together and contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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