For the second time this year, a class of students shook hands with the president of the University of Montana and their future boss at Cognizant-ATG to celebrate their graduation from a novel program that positions them for high-paying jobs within the company.
The class of 28 students graduated on Thursday night after completing a 12-week program designed to train them in the technology and business practices employed by the Fortune 200 company.
Most indicated a desire to stay in Missoula at the company’s new Solutions Center in the Old Sawmill District. All will begin work in early July, regardless of where they land.
“You guys faced adversity, overcame it, and now you’re a team joining another team,” said Tom Stergios, vice president of strategy and corporate development for Cognizant-ATG in Missoula. “Without the university, this program would not have been possible. There was a lot of innovation and planning that went into this.”
The program, known as All-In-Missoula, or AIM, traces its roots back to when ATG was a small but growing tech firm with a significant local presence. Facing rapid growth, the company sought new ways to train the workforce needed to fill its jobs.
It did so by partnering with UM, turning out two or three students at a time. When Cognizant acquired ATG last year, it also saw value in the young program and ramped it up to the current form, one that has now graduated more than 55 students.
“This was conceptualized last year,” said Amar Juluri, associate vice president of integration with Cognizant-ATG and one of the AIM program’s leaders in Missoula. “We were trying to find creative ways of addressing the labor challenge. It’s critical for us to tap into these skills that are available to us as a technology company.”
Thursday night’s class included students from a range of backgrounds, including a former downtown bartender, a concrete worker, and a woman who first entered UM as an exchange student in the 1970s.
Families turned out in their Sunday best and students considered their future with the company and the path that brought them to the AIM program.
“I was working at a grocery store, but that was just a temp job until I found an actual job,” said program graduate Austin Horner. “Before that, I was working around Montana Code School as a teacher’s assistant, trying to look for an actual job. Now I start on July 8. The hope is to stay in Missoula, though I know there are opportunities elsewhere.”
Over the past few years, UM has ventured deeper into the Missoula community to partner with companies struggling to fill “the jobs of tomorrow.” Many of those jobs, including those in technology, require certain skills that aren’t easily found.
UM President Seth Bodnar described the AIM program as a model the university intends to build upon.
“It’s a great example of a university-community collaboration and partnership,” he said. “Our job is to serve the needs of the state of Montana, to be responsive to our employers’ needs and to prepare our students well to meet those needs.”
The pace at which the AIM program unfolded may run contrary to yesterday’s university standards, where it took months or years to get a new program up and running.
Cognizant-ATG approached UM in November looking to begin the 12-week course and form the partnerships it required. The result is now described by program officials as one of the most respected and innovative partnerships of its kind in the company.
“Typically in higher ed, you’d say yes, a year-and-a-half from now we’ll have that ready to go,” Bodnar said. “We started the first cohort on Feb. 1, and that first cohort graduated just before commencement – 28 people.”
The first cohort was followed Thursday with the graduation of 28 additional students, each a future employee. A third cohort is already scheduled, as the company is planning for “aggressive” growth in Missoula and some other locations.
Bodnar billed the AIM program as a way to make today’s student’s “tomorrow proof.” It’s a theme he’s pushed since taking leadership of the university.
“We’ll have a bunch of new students show up on the Oval in a couple months, and the reality is, I can’t predict the types of jobs they’re going to do,” he said. “You could not have predicted the types of jobs these graduates tonight will be doing when they join (Cognizant-ATG) officially.
“It’s imperative for us as a university, and all of us as individuals, to continuously learn, grow and adapt, and reinvent yourself again and again. That’s what this program and all of your represent.”