Miguel Hernandez, former apprentice, now an online marketing analyst and Emelia Guadarama, an apprentice in the Bitwise program, which gives people from ‘marginalized’ communities opportunity to enter the tech field. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

This story is the third of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

Do you want a career in technology, but fear it may be too late for you?

Until a few months ago, Emelia Guadarama believed it was too late to pursue her tech career dream and was settled in her job as an alterations assistant in a Fresno bridal shop. Now, she is an apprentice at Bitwise Industries and chasing her dreams. She believes anyone can, too.

Miguel Hernandez had a rough start at life; he barely finished high school because he was heavily involved in criminal activities, had never held a stable job, and was “finding measly ways to get money without trying to get a job,” he said.

When Hernandez had work, he earned minimum wage, not enough to pay for housing or reliable transportation. He lived with whichever relative let him in, his life – as he put it – in a downward spiral. He found that not many employers would take a chance on someone with a felony on their record. “I got denied so many times,” he said; the economic odds he was facing seemed insurmountable.

Today, Hernandez, 23, is an online marketing analyst at Bitwise Industries,earns more than $60,000 a year and has his own apartment. The key to his turnaround: an apprenticeship run by Bitwise which recruits people like Hernandez and trains them for highly competitive careers in the tech industry.

Guadarama’s story is no less striking than that of Hernandez’s. It had taken her years of shopping mall jobs to get to what she believed was her niche – fitting and altering wedding dresses. Then during a conversation with a high school friend, she learned about opportunities at Bitwise. Now at age 39, she is learning coding and preparing for a career in technology.

For Hernandez and Guadarama, a career in technology was not something either of them could have imagined or thought attainable. Both have gotten here via nontraditional routes and are part of a new generation of emerging tech industry workers, recruited from what Michele Skoor, chief workforce officer at Bitwise, describes as “overlooked places, underestimated cities and often overlooked communities.”

What Bitwise has succeeded in doing is bringing technology to unlikely places, and, in the process, changing the landscape and numerous lives.

Bitwise Industries, according to its website, is “focused on connecting humans from marginalized communities and stories of systemic poverty to skills and resources necessary to access opportunities in the tech industry,” even if they may have dropped out of high school or have no previous knowledge of computers or have had a few run-ins with the law, or grew up on the wrong side of town.

Technology, ‘forgotten people and places’

If you only associate technology with places like San Francisco, Silicon Valley, New York or Los Angeles, think again. Bitwise is determined to add cities and towns from the central San Joaquin Valley to that mix.

Skoor said that Irma Olguin, co-founder of Bitwise, envisioned this evolution years ago when she left her native Caruthers for college and training in technology. “Once in the tech industry, she looked around and thought, ‘these people don’t look like me; they don’t come from the backgrounds that I come from; they surely often don’t come from the cities where I come from.’”

Olguin started the Bitwise focus on “those often overlooked places – cities like Fresno, and Bakersfield and Merced” – and populations that are rarely associated with high technology. Bitwise has also expanded to Oakland and Toledo, Ohio. “We’re hoping to announce more locations soon as we look to serve underdog cities all over the country,” said Thilani Grubel, vice president for Bitwise Industries in Fresno.

“We’re creating those opportunities in those cities, so that we offer that generational increase in wealth, back to people as they become employed, that stays in those cities, that increases city and economic GDP and opportunities for people,” Skoor said.

Growth of tech sector in Fresno

“Fresno’s economy is growing and diversifying, and the benefits are reaching people who haven’t historically enjoyed opportunity,” said Grubel, who estimates that Bitwise is responsible for about $295 million in aggregate wages earned by graduates in the Fresno area.

Bitwise has contributed to the growth of the tech sector of Fresno, Grubel said, by “asking people who never considered the field to try it out and train with us; helping people get into the field who might not have been able to obtain the necessary knowledge, if not for the availability of apprenticeships; turning a significant number of these new trainees into tech entrepreneurs; bringing tech businesses and coworkers together in the same spaces to meet one another and discover new opportunities.”

The average annual pay for graduates of the training programs is $41,200 with actual wages ranging from $21,500 to $62,700. The average earning of a grad with three years experience is $81,000 annually, Grubel said.

Bitwise places 100% of the apprentices who have gone through their program, Grubel said; 97% of all Bitwise graduates are still in tech jobs; 88% of those have advanced into higher roles; 52% are still with their first employer while 45% are in other jobs but have a more senior role. Additionally, many go back to pursue higher ed, or start businesses and join up with other innovators to staff start-ups.

Representative of the communities

To date, Bitwise has trained, through the pre-apprentice and apprentice pipeline, 8,000 individuals in the cities where the company serves. The average student is a 26-year-old Latinx woman with a high school diploma, currently doing field, factory, restaurant or retail work and making about $21,500 a year, according to a recent workforce survey conducted by Bitwise.

Bitwise, Skoor said, targets people “in jobs that were retail or service work, or factory and field work, to provide pathways for upskilling into the tech sector” in order for the “tech sector to look like the communities in which it exists…training and then employing people who are representative of those very communities that they come from.”

Sixty percent of trainees are Black and/or brown; 60% are women or non-binary; 41% are LGBTQ+; nearly half of trainees are either first-generation Americans or immigrants; one in 20 is a veteran, and one in 50 was formerly incarcerated.

“I thought I was the only one who’s been previously incarcerated. I didn’t know everyone else in the class was, also, so I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to say a single word. I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut to make sure; let me see who these people are first,’” Hernandez said of his first class in the Bitwise apprenticeship program. “And it turns out, we all have the same backstory, and all of us just connected, and it was just a great experience.”

Like Guadarama, many of the trainees coming from those small communities know too well the self-doubt and insecurity that have plagued every decision they have ever made. Guadarama always loved technology, enough that her grandmother bought her a laptop. She joined a computer class in high school, but, upon realizing she was the only female in the class, switched into a Spanish class instead. Her life was going nowhere.​

“I went to City (Fresno City College) for a year and a half, and mostly, all the classes I took were like art and film,” she said. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘I really don’t know what I want to do with my life. I don’t know if I want to go to an art school. It’s so expensive.’ It didn’t seem accessible.”

“I was understanding that this job (alterations) I was doing, I had worked as far as I thought I could there, and I just had to really think, ‘Gosh, I’m getting older; where is this really going to leave me, and do I really want to be there?’”

Minorities in the tech industry

Much of the widening wage gap among American workers is related to the digital access or lack of it between communities – cities vs. rural areas, white vs. Black and brown and college vs. non-college educated.

Despite efforts to increase diversity in tech fields, by all estimates, Blacks and Latinos as well as women are grossly underrepresented in the field. A 2014 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that the high-tech sector employed a larger share of whites – 63.5% compared to 68.5% in private industry.

The reverse is the case for Blacks and Latinos at 7.4% and 8%, compared to 14.4% and 13.9% respectively; women held 36% of tech jobs compared to 48% in the private industry. A 2019 Wired survey puts the combined Black, Hispanic and Indigenous population for Silicon Valley firms at 5%.

Bitwise, according to Skoor, is determined to turn those statistics on its head and increase participation by these traditionally excluded groups.

“We must intentionally look to ensure these communities are included and representative in the technology workforce we’re creating,” Skoor said. “And so for us, that means, it is veterans; it is formerly incarcerated communities; it is LGBTQ communities.”

“They really do go to underrepresented parts of the city,” Guadarama said.

“I love that Bitwise is actually accessible for people who think they don’t have a place there,” she said. “They’re mostly brown and Black and, and you can see their toughness and their intelligence; they’re underestimated, but they’re so smart.”

Miguel Hernandez agrees. “I ended up getting my own place; I have my car; I never have to worry about it breaking down because I can at least afford to fix it,” he said.

“I never have to worry about not getting gifts for anybody for Christmas or not being able to help other family members with rent, groceries, anything they need. I can actually feel like a provider for all the siblings in my family.”

How the training program works

According to information on the Bitwise website, students pay $250 for a six-week class The actual cost of training each apprentice, Grubel stated, runs about $119,247 (from Apprentice Cost Calculator by City or State doc)​.

Job training programs like what Bitwise offers are becoming more common, but could also raise concerns about the financial burden of the overall cost the apprentice ultimately bears and whether they should be paying for the acquisition of job skills.

“Decades ago, there was an assumption that you learned the job; when you got the job, you would learn, either through a labor management partnership, or just on the job,” said Edward Flores, a sociology professor at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, during a March 4 interview with Fresnoland.

“While labor management partnerships might be popular among folks that are into equitable economic development, there are employers that just want to have nothing to do with the cost of training workers, they want the public to pay for it.”

Bitwise offers pre-apprenticeships and paid apprenticeships, lasting anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on the program. The pre-apprenticeship, Skoor said, is designed to remove barriers that prevent students from gaining access initially or that stop them from being successful.

The support “doesn’t end simply because you’ve sat in front of a computer and learned to code right or registered for a course, and so, a large part of our model is also ensuring that we have significant wraparound services for students and that starts from the moment we do reach out and invite that person into our pre-apprentice classes.”

It means that for students with a tumultuous past like Hernandez, Bitwise offers additional support, helping with filing court and probation papers.

“They worked with me, thankfully, and they actually helped write me letters for the judge, to let them know that ‘he is trying; he’s passed all our classes here; we set him up with a job,’ and all those kinds of things,” Hernandez said. “They helped me out, and it was a great experience.”

To ensure that apprentices from rural communities have reliable transportation to and from school, Bitwise launched a van service.

“For the people we serve, when we can get transportation to them, it’s a game-changer — it opens up possibilities for their lives,” Grubel told The Fresno Bee/Fresnoland in December.

The program’s schedules accommodate the needs of those in the pre-apprentice program who need to keep working while they are figuring out “what technology jobs may be for them as they’re doing that learning journey,” Skoor said, “so we ensure that they’ve got time still to take care of life responsibilities, even if they are care providers during the day, so that nighttime courses work for them.”

Their 2022 plan involves including “women into the technology workforce, now with a disproportionate impact due to COVID-19,” Skoor said. “It means we have to think about, ‘What are those barriers?’ Oftentimes, it’s childcare. So how are we addressing childcare? That is our responsibility to address as we’re creating these training opportunities for people.”

Skoor explained that to access the opportunities in the pre-apprentice program, an applicant needs to have completed high school or a GED but does not need to have prior knowledge of coding, “nothing other than being ready to being able to take the course,” which meets twice a week, three hours at night.

“In just six weeks, students learn a new skill or programming language,” according to information on Bitwise’s website. Apprentices sharpen their skills working on real projects under the supervision of experts. The curriculum for the program is driven by industry and “focused on the most current trends and theories in the tech industry,” using “coding languages and tech skills that developers and companies actively use today….to prepare people for careers in the technology industry.”

To ensure the students’ success, the program builds in study groups and mentorships, plus one-on-one support for students. Skoor said it’s also about understanding the various communities and anticipating their needs.

“I was surrounded by great people. The teachers were really supportive, setting up after-school study groups, and it was just all perfect,” Hernandez said. “I had all the tools around me to make it work, so I just had to put in my effort.”

For Guadarama, the support system made the difference. “I don’t know if I would have been able to hang on as long as I have. It’s so open and available to you. And if I ever have just even a dumb question, I know I can ask it and not feel like I’m putting a target on my back, or that I’m the dumb person in the group.”

Her fears that not being strong in math would impede her progress in the apprenticeship are gone. “It is a misconception,” she said. “It is like the stigma that you have to be a brainiac to work in tech.”

Now, she says, she tells any kid who will listen, “You can do it if it’s learnable; you don’t need to be the smartest kid in your class to learn this.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.