After getting laid off in 2018 from his job as a project manager with Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc., Levi Coon left the world of commercial construction for good and joined the ranks of Memphis’ knowledge economy.

It was for the best. He was already on the verge of deciding to make the jump anyway. He saw more of a future in writing code than helping build buildings — which led him last summer, after a decade or so in various construction industry roles, to a job with FedEx Services as a software developer.

Getting laid off is one of those oft-mentioned brutal life transitions, others being death and divorce. Making the jump to a new industry altogether can be stressful in its own way, with everything from a new professional rhythm to entirely new industry nomenclature to absorb.

Coon’s situation, meanwhile, is instructive on yet another level. Sure, knowledge economy workers are what cities like Memphis and others increasingly covet. They’re part of a young, upwardly mobile professional class that tends to throw itself into a city’s arts scene, embrace its culture, patronize its restaurants, and generally take a great interest in the quality of life afforded by the place they call home.

Coon’s career transition, though, wasn’t the serendipitous product of some random bit of luck or who-you-know. He got it thanks to a little-publicized but increasingly indispensable stratum within the sedimentary layers of the city’s education system, where the obvious and more highly visible components like colleges and public schools can overshadow what’s beneath.

Levi Coon

In Coon’s case, it was the professional development instruction and coursework provided in what are often novel settings in Memphis that helped him write the next chapter of his professional life.

Examples of this kind of professional development cover a wide area of categories. There is, for example, the Professional Development Center in the University of Memphis’ Fogelman College of Business and Economics. And, in Coon’s case, an unrelated entity called Tech901.

The latter, founded in July 2015 and operating from a dedicated space within Crosstown Concourse, is a nonprofit with a straightforward mission. It’s right there, spelled out formally in Tech901’s charter — the mission being to expand the base of technology industry workers in the city to 10,000 employees by 2025, from the current estimate of 6,000.

The program is unique, even though you can of course get the same kind of training and instruction in a normal college setting, on a traditional college campus. For that, however, you’d also have to shell out for the typical cost of said education, which may be more money than a professional trying to make a career transition is willing and able to part with. Especially if you need to make that career adjustment fast.

That’s exactly the scenario where Tech901 can assist. Its nonprofit model means students like Coon have to pay only a nominal fee, ranging from $100 to $250 for classes, which are generally 12 to 14 weeks long. They’re open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED-equivalent. And the program’s leaders say it was developed precisely to give CIOs and executives in similar leadership positions at top companies around the city a pipeline that’s filled with, ideally, an ever-growing number of professionals, like Coon.

Speaking of Coon, his was one of those it’s-a-small-world moments, in that while at Grinder, Taber & Grinder, he was the project manager in charge of the buildout for what would become Tech901’s physical space. Little did he know he’d eventually find himself occupying one of the desks in that classroom, learning how to manipulate ones and zeroes.

“It was a little bit of an unknown going into this, because of the speed with which I had to do it,” Coon says, regarding how quickly his life needed to change. “But it turned out to be such a pleasant surprise. The teacher was Brad Montgomery, who does a fantastic job. He was really supportive, and the people in that class were also coming from all kinds of different backgrounds. You might have somebody who’s a hobbyist. You might have somebody who’s doing it to bolster their current career path. You might have people making career transitions, like me. I think, in the beginning, the class was probably 15 to 20 people.”

But make no mistake, he continues. Tech901 is what saved him. “The certifications, the connections there — for sure, that’s the reason I was successfully able to transition careers.”

Tech901 co-founder and chief operating officer Steve Denegri tells Inside Memphis Business that since its founding, the nonprofit has moved a total of about 600 students like Coon through its various offerings. And in 2019, the nonprofit hopes to complete about 450 new trainings, teaching classes year-round.

Denegri and his co-founder Robert Montague had both been former tech analysts in the investment world before opening their nonprofit’s doors. “As part of that work,” Denegri explains, “we had befriended several CIOs across the country but in particular some locally whom we remained friends with after leaving that business. In following up with them, we’d learned that they were having a really difficult time finding talent. FedEx, particularly, had hundreds of IT job openings that were unfilled. And that’s not a Memphis phenomenon; it’s certainly a nationwide phenomenon.”

Both men started trying to look into ways that gap could be fixed. The feedback they got was that employers more or less believed the raw talent was out there in Memphis, especially for a lot of the entry-level tech jobs. The barrier was the education, in that tuition costs were too high for the potential workers these employers wanted to be able to tap. “So we saw an opportunity, through a nonprofit model, to train Memphians who we felt like could qualify from an intellectual standpoint to get this training for an extremely low cost,” Denegri says.

The course list includes classes in IT networking, foundations, security and projects, as well as a Code 1.0 Introduction to Computer Science. The average student is 30 years old, and according to the nonprofit, its average graduate goes on to secure an IT job paying around $36,500 a year — a 74 percent increase versus what they were making before they participated in Tech901’s classwork.

Fifty Memphis-area companies have hired Tech901 graduates at the time of this writing, and Tech901 achieved almost 100 known job placements in 2018 alone. Among some other metrics and highlights about the nonprofit’s work:

The vast majority of the students it serves — almost 80 percent — are men and women of color. Thirty-six percent of its students are women, and the desire for a career change is one of the most common motivations. Around 30 percent of Tech901’s students also start a class unemployed.

“Our offices open at 8:30” in the morning, Denegri says. “Typically, we have a day class that will start at nine. Our typical class duration is about three months, three hours a day. Our day class runs from 9 a.m. to noon for about three months, and then classes kick off at 6 p.m. again at night. Because the demand is so strong now and workers hard to find, programs like ours are really being viewed as an excellent substitute to degree programs.”

CIOs have been looking for more tech talent and having a hard time — a phenomenon not only in Memphis but nationwide

Filling in the gaps left in the traditional high school and collegiate education landscape, meanwhile, is of course about more than turning Luddites into tech-savvy IT professionals. Anyone who’s been in the workforce for any length of time can instantly point to a whole body of knowledge that’s required to land and maintain the job you want — the kind of things that generally fall outside of rote memorization, math problems, and chemical formulas.

It’s not enough to have learned all the facts and figures needed to score a diploma, a degree, and prove your intellectual mettle to a prospective employer. It does little good if you cobble together a terrible resume, or don’t know how to tell a compelling story about yourself, or are lousy at interviewing for a job.

These and related proficiencies are called “soft skills” by some, but Dr. Kathy Tuberville, director of the Avron B. Fogelman Professional Development Center within the University of Memphis’ Fogelman College of Business and Economics, dislikes that phrase. She believes it undercuts how important those skills are — and how hard it is to teach them so that students can use them successfully.

The center she runs represents another example of filling in the gaps to help in the professional development of Memphians who need every advantage as they step into the workforce.

Housed on the second floor of the Fogelman College building on the U of M campus, the center got its start as a result of its namesake hearing that many business students were having a hard time entering the workforce. Seeing that there were skills they either needed or could use some brushing up on to help pave their way, Fogelman decided to provide seed funding for a center that would teach U of M business students everything from dining etiquette to how to build a LinkedIn presence.

The center’s staff also helps students prepare polished resumes, and in turn those resumes go into a pipeline so that employers in the Memphis area always have a pool they can readily dip into.

After a slow, somewhat quiet start, the center got rolling early in 2013.

“A lot of employers find students graduating from college lack these kinds of skills on a regular basis,” Tuberville says. “Part of that is a result of our digital environment. Twenty years ago when we weren’t using technology as much, we interacted with each other on a more regular basis verbally. And we’ve lost some of those skills.”

Tuberville also teaches management leadership as a faculty member. “So I also teach the importance of building your own career,” she says. “You are, in essence, driving your own career. No one’s going to pick a career for you. You have to develop your plan and determine what it’s going to take.”

For many veteran professionals — or, in the center’s case, young job-seekers — making that determination may lead some of them to creative professional development solutions. Actually, a lot of them. Each semester, more than 2,400 students are involved in some form of programming offered by the U of M’s professional development center. That encompasses everything from lectures to workshops to the center’s complete slate of professional programs. (Details at www.memphis.edu/professional).

When you participate in something like that, you’re underscoring in a small, subtle, but profound way that the professional rat race really isn’t a race at all. It’s never over, in the sense that instead of some clearly defined endpoint there’s always higher ground to strive for. You can also start over, as do the participants in Tech901’s offering. With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, this is one instance where you can indeed go home again.

Or, you can turn to something like the U of M’s center to fill in some of the blank spaces in your understanding of the working world.

“At the Fogelman College of Business and Economics, we prepare our students quite well from an education standpoint in terms of preparing them for a business career,” says Dr. Marla Royne Stafford, interim dean of the Fogelman College. “However, students don’t always have the skill sets for interviews. They need help with resumes. They need help entering the workforce. So the Avron Fogelman Professional Development Center provides a lot of those resources, to help them to actually get the jobs. It’s an enrichment program beyond just their academic training.

“It makes for a more complete person, so they can be successful not just in landing a job but in keeping the job and being successful in the workforce.”