Tigard HS, Mentor Graphics are creating a new generation of IT professionals

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Holland Taylor, 19, is one of several young IT professionals who were able to get important certifications through his coursework at Tigard High School. The school partnered with Mentor Graphics in Wilsonville to offer the expensive accreditation exams free of charge.At Consolidated Supply in Tigard, Holland Taylor is trying to retrieve some files from a broken computer.

The 19-year-old high school graduate is the youngest in the company’s four-person Information Technologies department. He’s worked here for more than a year, starting when he was a senior at Tigard High School.

Taylor calls himself a “Guinea pig,” one of the first to take advantage of a special program that helps high school students like him prepare for a career in the IT industry.

It takes years to master the ins and outs of the various hardware and software out there, and there are trade associations that certify IT workers across the globe, but the tests to get certified can be expensive, especially for those hoping to break into the business.

Enter Tigard High School teacher Steve Fulton, and a special partnership with Wilsonville’s Mentor Graphics that helped get those certifications into the hands of young professionals.

Fulton, who teaches computer science and information technologies at Tigard High, is a firm believer in the importance of getting certified.

“It really is in their best interest to finish their accreditations,” he said.

The certifications are taken by professionals all over the country. For his students, it’s a way to help those with little work experience show potential employers that they can do the job.

“I’m pretty sure the reason I got my first interview was because I had those certifications,” said Jack Schultz, 17, who graduated from Tigard High School in May with four certifications.

There are a whole host of certification tests out there, Fulton said, including certifications by the Computer Technology Industry Association — or CompTIA — which certify that they are proficient in a wide variety of areas.

“It’s the industry baseline,” Shultz said. “It’s not something that you need, but it’s definitely a good thing to have.”

Fulton’s IT courses help students learn the basics of the industry and, when they feel ready, he helps get them certification exams.

“They join me when they are freshmen or sophomores and they stay with me through the whole course until they feel confident enough to take the tests,” Fulton said.

These aren’t easy tests, either. They’re the same standards that IT professionals all over the world are held to, Fulton said.

“These are professional certifications for grown men and women,” Fulton said. “And our kids are taking it at the end of a high school course.”

Building a workforce

The problem isn’t having the knowledge to ace the tests, Fulton said, it’s actually getting their hands on the exams in the first place.

The tests are expensive, often running hundreds of dollars for a single person.

“You’re looking at about $1,000 worth of tests if you want to take several certifications,” he said.

“And that’s just the basic tests,” said Taylor. “A buddy and I are working on a router training and advanced networking certification. The test alone is about $2,000. It’s not cheap.”

To help students get their accreditations, Fulton scrounged up as much money as he could to help his students pay for the exams.

He was able to pull together about $3,000 from student fees and from a professional development fund, as well as about $1,000 of his own money.

Mentor Graphics, which makes software used to design computer chips and other electronics, heard about Fulton’s plans and wanted to pitch in.

The company gave the school $4,100 this year to help students take certifications tests, as well as fund the school’s robotics teams and purchase new textbooks.

The extra money allowed Fulton to purchase CompTIA and other exams for his students.

“We were able to get tests to the students free of charge,” Fulton said, though students were asked to chip in some of their own money, so they “would have some skin in the game,” Fulton said.

Fulton said that having businesses help fund these types of programs makes sense.

“What we are all trying to do is get kids involved,” Fulton said. “The one thing that is on all of our minds is that we want to build a workforce. Businesses can do that by encouraging science, technology, engineering and math programs in local high schools.”

‘Call me when you graduate’

At Consolidated, Taylor said he didn’t have a lot of real-world experience when he first started at the company, but he had all the knowledge, thanks to Fulton’s courses.

With a certification from Microsoft already under his belt, Taylor said he plans to take the CompTIA certification tests soon.

Having a certification isn’t everything, said Taylor’s boss Rod Sanders. As director of IT at Consolidated, he has hired experienced technicians who have no certifications.

But Sanders said that if Taylor had more certifications, he’d be able to work on more sophisticated equipment, and would be eligible for higher pay.

“Right now, I’m not doing high-level IT work,” Taylor said. “It’s secondary work to help the system administrator, but if I can get certified I can do more.”

James Anderson, another Tigard High School graduate, doesn’t have any certifications right now, but said that taking Fulton’s courses in high school helped him get his first job.

During a job interview Anderson had in April, he said his interviewer was amazed at his proficiency through Fulton’s courses.

“I told him all the training I had with hardware, software, operating systems, network administrating and robotics. He looked at me, looked at my resume, and walked out of the room to talk to someone. I heard them say ‘Oh, my god,’ and they came in and said ‘Here’s my card, call me the day you graduate.’ ”

He said that getting certified is a must for him.

“It’s going to be expensive to do it on my own,” he said. “But it’s worth it.”

Fulton said that he plans to grow the program.

“Now that we have the ball rolling this will gradually get bigger and bigger and we will be able to offer more and more exams,” Fulton said.

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