Students at Western Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC) — a public career technical education district — earn certifications that qualify them for well-paying careers upon graduation.
Every year at the Southwest Campus in Buckeye, IT security instructor Paul Getz stands up at orientation and challenges his students.
“I tell them I’m not going to limit them. I’ve got enough content to last five years, so students can push themselves beyond what’s listed in the curriculum. Duane really took me to task on that,” laughed Getz.
Duane Balog, a recent graduate from Estrella Foothills High School, came to West-MEC with a plan to earn as many certifications as he could, as quickly as he could. His determination landed him a job in the IT field right out of high school at Canyon Business Solutions in Surprise.
Technology and the demands of the IT industry are constantly changing.
“If you pool one hundred industry professionals, they’re going to have varying amounts of certifications, and some will have zero,” said Getz.
Still, credentials are a way for professionals to validate the skills they’ve developed. Certification attainment is the goal of the IT security program at West-MEC so students can provide proof of their capabilities to employers. The first semester focuses on hardware and software in preparation for the CompTIA A+ certification.
“Within six weeks, Duane already passed both A+ tests first try. And I’m not talking just barely passed,” said Getz.
After setting up an independent plan with Mr. Getz, Duane identified his next challenge: the CompTIA Network+ certification. At that point, no other IT security student had passed the test.
“Duane asked me for some materials so he could study at home. Within three weeks he passed the Network+ exam. At this point, I knew he was serious about his plan,” said Getz.
Next on Duane’s list was the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification, but he needed to practice with networking hardware first, something he couldn’t do at home.
In a climate controlled space detached from the IT security classroom, two black towers of servers, routers, switches, and cables connect to a laptop used for running network simulations. This room was Duane’s playground for two months as he, along with another student Matthew Graves, worked through a 500-page document on how to configure the NetLab.
“It typically costs $10,000 for a professional to come out and set up the NetLab and I just didn’t have enough hours in a day to do it myself. So, I saw an opportunity to give Duane and Matthew ownership over a project. Duane would come in early and lock himself in the server room with Matthew and they’d just go at it,” said Getz.
After spending time with the physical components used in creating a network, Duane was ready for the next certification exam.
“Cisco recommends you have three years of experience before taking the CCNA. But Duane had a plan. For a month, he was studying five hours a day in preparation. It paid off because he smashed the test,” said Getz. “I can’t tell you how absurd it sounds to do the CCNA so quickly.”
Certifications and technical know-how are important to employers, but they aren’t the only factors that influence career development.
“We still struggle with soft skills and professional skills in our field. Certifications validate your aptitude, but can you articulate what you know in an interview? You’ve got to be able to work well with others and stay humble — it’s easy to come off as arrogant in this business really fast,” said Getz.
To help develop professional skills, all students in the IT security program are involved with the career technical student organization SkillsUSA. Students get the opportunity to meet other people in similar programs, have the opportunity to lead in officer roles, and test their skills at competitions.
This, along with resume and interviewing workshops hosted by West-MEC career services, ensure students are well-rounded and ready for interviews, should they choose to go directly into the workforce.
After updating his LinkedIn profile to reflect attaining his CCNA certification, Duane was consistently getting job offers. He ended up taking a position with Canyon Business Solutions, close to his home in Surprise with a salary ramping up to $50,000 within his first year.