Isolated suit in a Tron-esque lightscape of a server farm.

In my new book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, I write that nearly everyone will have to become a continuous learner to adapt to changes in the modern workplace. Workers will have to learn new skills to retain their jobs, and students will need to acquire skills to become workers and constantly improve those skills to remain employed.

One of my favorite stories in the book shows how one visionary business leader saw the importance of focusing on the individual both as a learner and a worker.

Jim Wolford saw both a social problem and a business problem. So he decided to design a job-training program to address both.

As chief executive officer of Atomic Data, an information technology company in Minneapolis, Wolford was troubled by the lack of economic opportunity for persons of color in Minnesota and by his company’s difficulty in finding well-qualified workers.

Atomic Data made a commitment to diversify its workforce more than six years ago, but Wolford realized that simply relying on the flow of graduates from universities, community colleges, and trade schools was not providing the number or quality of people he needed.

“It wasn’t working for us or our customers, so we decided to do it ourselves,” he said.

Atomic teamed with a local community-based vocational training and job placement program called Summit Academy OIC, whose mission statement could be the title of a book: “The best social service program in the world is a job.”

Working with Summit CEO Louis King, Wolford created an intensive, 20-week IT training program. In two years and four cohorts of trainees, the academy has graduated 41 workers now employed by Atomic, where 45 percent of the 300-member workforce represents diverse communities, mostly people of color.

Now, after the COVID pandemic and massive street protests calling for racial justice, Wolford’s progressive plan to increase access to good-paying IT jobs is drawing attention from other employers in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Both Wolford and King are fielding calls from businesses large and small that want to know how they did it.

“Jim was the first adapter. No one wants to be the first in the pool, but he jumped in, and it worked for him,” said King, whose academy also trains workers in health care and construction.

“We did it, and it’s working fine. You get the trifecta with this,” King said. “It’s good for business, good for the worker, and good for the community. And anytime you get the trifecta, everybody wins.”

Wolford said he and King are “making a pitch to more and more companies on how to do this. We’ll give them the blueprint.

“We ask them, ‘Do you want to know how we did this?’” said Wolford. “It’s working. I think we have a solution for these cities where people are untrained.”

Wolford said the training program is drawing an increased number of interested applicants, who must go through intensive screening and background checks before being admitted to training for jobs in the security-conscious IT field.

“This population has been hit hard. They need the jobs,” said Wolford. “If you can make $25 an hour sitting at a help desk for Atomic, why would you want to get $21 an hour driving a delivery truck.”

The training program continued through virtual learning during the pandemic and is now using a hybrid model, with some students learning in-person for part of the week and studying virtually the rest of the time.

Wolford is such a strong believer in the program that Atomic has committed funds to train two cohorts a year for the next five years.

“The graduates are doing well,” he said. “They are all people with high IQs, but they never would have had this opportunity because of the color of their skin or their locale.”

Graduates hired by Atomic are paid slightly less than $40,000 annually, with full benefits. Within two to three years after graduating, some could be making $100,000. Already, seven academy graduates have been promoted.

And while doing good, Wolford and Atomic are also doing good business. The demand for IT services has intensified during the pandemic, with employees at most companies working remotely and with heightened security challenges that come with remote work. While many businesses have had to lay off workers, Atomic is still working at full force.

Atomic Data’s story shows the company understands the deeper connection between learning and work, and how investing in the talent of people is key to success in a world of human work. With the interest other companies are showing in the Atomic model, let’s hope more businesses come to understand that developing the broad talent of their people helps the companies in innumerable ways and is reflected in the bottom line.

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