Microsoft has moved aggressively to expand its information technology training courses for troops leaving the military that has already helped more than 300 transitioning service members land good-paying jobs in the industry.
"This has really got some traction now. We believe in this very strongly and we're in this for the long term," retired Marine Maj. Gen. Chris Cortez, Microsoft's vice president for military affairs, said of the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA) programs that will be made available to more troops with at least six months left before they leave the military.
Building on the pilot program that began in 2013 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Microsoft recently announced plans to start the courses at five Army posts, beginning with Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in April.
The education program was also expected to be available atFort Benning, Georgia
; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Carson, Colorado, Fort Bliss, Texas, within the next two years as Microsoft expands on its commitment to be the first firm from the IT field to offer formal IT training to service members before their separation date. In addition to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the program is also currently in place at the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, California. Plans are also in the works to open MSSA programs at the Marine bases at Quantico, Virginia; andCamp Lejeune, North Carolina
. An off-base location was planned to serve Naval Air Stations Jacksonville and Mayport in Florida, and the California Community Center in San Diego was planning to offer the courses for Naval Station San Diego, Naval Air Station North Island and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
LaVanda Harrison, an Army captain who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, was one of the first to go through the MSSA course in the pilot program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Harris, 34, of Brooklyn, New York, said her background was in graphic design at Georgia Southern College and the Microsoft training was "basically a boot camp" in information technology for her.
"You really have to do some hard thinking" to prepare for the course and commit to it, she said. "Your career is in your own hands" through transition. Initially, "I thought -- oh gosh -- this is a little bit over my head. It took about two or three weeks just trying to understand the concepts," Harris said. "There was a lot of homework to build up fundamentals."
But she passed and now has a job as a senior analyst in program management with Accenture in Atlanta with a salary that she put in the range of $80-90,000.
According to Cortez, 319 military personnel have completed MSSA training since it began and about 96 companies have hired program graduates to work for their organizations at an average starting pay of $70,000. In addition to Microsoft, the emp[oyers included Dell, Amazon Web Services, Accenture, the Department of Defense, Cap Gemini and others.
"Microsoft is on track to achieve its goal of hiring about a quarter of the service members it trains through MSSA and is collaborating closely with its hiring partners to open up opportunities for all who complete the program," Cortez said.
Microsoft saw the courses as "a way to be helpful to our military and veterans," Cortez said, but he stressed that "this is not a giveaway. It's about giving our military an opportunity. They have so much to offer and we know that."
About 190,000-200,000 troops leave the military each year, he said, "and what we saw was an opportunity" in that pool of talent, bringing with them the values and discipline of the military, to fill roles at Microsoft and other employers in the IT field.
It's also good public relations and good business for Microsoft. "The U.S. military is one our biggest customers. We're a huge seller to the military," said Cortez, a 33-year Marine veteran who led 1st Battalion, Fifth Marines, in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm against Iraq in the liberation of Kuwait.
Cortez and others at Microsoft said they did not immediately have estimates on the worth of Microsoft's contracts with the Defense Department. Cortez also said he did not have a figure on how much Microsoft had invested in the MSSA courses for the military, but estimated that "it's in the millions."
However, earlier this month, the Defense Department announced that it would be upgrading more than four million DoD devices to Microsoft's seven-month-old Windows 10 operating system.
"From laptops to desktops to mobile devices, including Surface devices, the DoD is targeting its Windows 10 upgrade for completion in a year, an unprecedented move for a customer with the size and complexity of the DoD," Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, said in a blog post.
The overall goal for Microsoft through the MSSA programs at military bases was to place 5,000 transitioning service members in high-paying STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) and IT careers by 2020.
Essentially, Microsoft was providing the course work and its partner, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was providing the instruction in areas such as business intelligence, cloud development, cloud administration, and database and business intelligence.
In announcing the partnership with Microsoft last year, Dr. Brad Sims, chancellor of Embry-Riddle Worldwide, said that "Embry Riddle takes great pride in its relationship with the military and long history of serving the educational needs of U.S. service members."
"By combining Embry-Riddle's commitment to high-quality academics with Microsoft's unparalleled IT expertise, [we] have a winning formula for success," Sims said.
According to Microsoft, 92 percent of military MSSA participants have successfully completed the program and of those graduates, 82 percent are now employed or have gone on to pursue more schooling. Ninety-six companies have hired MSSA graduates, and the average starting salary for graduates is more than $70,000, Microsoft said.
In addition to technical skills, the MSSA courses also focused on "soft-skills" -- helping service members brush up on resume and interview techniques.
Speaking from Fort Campbell last week, Teresa English, one of the Army's Career Skills Program Coordinators, said the agreement to start the MSSA program on base grew out of meetings with the Army's Installation Command at Fort Sam Houston in Texas last year, where Microsoft made a presentation.
"It seemed like something we'd be interested in doing," for the 400 soldiers who transition out of Fort Campbell each month, she said. With the approval of the Campbell garrison commander, Col. James Salome, "We've briefed 117 soldiers in the last two weeks" on MSSA and "so far we have about 30 applications," English said.
Applicants must have the approval of their base commander for the 18-week course and also present a resume, proof of a high school diploma or GED, and proof of the successful completion of high school algebra to be eligible. Cortez said a background in IT was not necessary and the courses were open to troops from all military occupational specialties.
Regina Watkins, an Embry-Riddle coordinator for the MSSA programs, said the current plan for the 18-week course was to have 32-40 hours a week of classes by Embry-Riddle instructors, with a mentor from Microsoft coming in once a week. "We're very excited about this opportunity," English said, "and it's going to be a wonderful opportunity for soldiers who want to get into the IT field."
For Marine Sgt. Jose Cruz, who was among the first to complete the MSSA course at Camp Pendleton, the experience was what he called "life changing." For Cruz and for so many other transitioning troops, the challenge of leaving the military and taking on the civilian job market was daunting.
"It was amazing to me to hear that Microsoft was actually interested in hiring veterans," Cruz said at a forum on transition sponsored by Microsoft ahead of Veterans Day last year. Cruz was hired by Microsoft last year and "I still think this is all a dream. I'm living my dream job because of this program," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.