School districts across the country are strapped for cash, and computer techs are in high demand.
That means public schools with tight budgets sometimes get the short shaft when it comes to finding staff to keep their computer networks up and running. Jobs stand vacant too long. Applicants go elsewhere for better pay. Often, schools are forced to contract with outside computer specialists at pricey by-the-hour rates.
Amphitheater Public Schools has had to do all of the above.
Beginning in the fall, though, the district will start a "grow-your-own" program, hiring entry-level computer techs with minimal training, and paying to train and certify them.
New employees who know enough to install hard drives and do basic repairs on the district's computers will get the training they need to advance to the district's next tier of techs - the ones who make sure the district's computers are communicating with each other properly.
That will cost the district as much as $10,000 for a single employee, depending on the type of certification sought, but David Fernandez, director of technology, said that will be more than compensated for by the workable salaries the district will be able to offer.
"Somebody who has the training, certification and experience demands a much higher salary that's difficult to meet," he said.
According to salary.com, a Web site that tracks salary trends across the United States, computer techs in Tucson with backgrounds comparable to Amphi's second tier make a median salary of $38,915. Amphi's starting salary for such network maintainers is about $35,000.
Todd Jaeger, Amphi's associate superintendent, said the district will lose even more of its competitive edge soon because it is moving to a Microsoft (platform), which is commonly used. The district will be competing for employees with all other local companies and organizations that use that system.
In Tucson, Raytheon and the University of Arizona are two large-scale employers of computer techs that pay significantly more than Amphi.
In exchange for free schooling, new Amphi employees must agree to stay at Amphi for three years. If they leave earlier, they must reimburse the district their education costs.
That prevents new employees from taking advantage of the district's financial investment and then quitting their jobs soon after to accept higher paying jobs.
While the district's technology department is new to reimbursing its staff for costly training, the district's transportation department is not.
For years, Amphi has reimbursed its aspiring school bus drivers for the training they need to get commercial driver's licenses and bus driver certification. Sometimes, the trainees abandon their jobs, certification in hand, to find better pay, Jaeger said.
During the 2002-03 school year, Marana Unified School District resolved that problem by requiring its bus drivers to reimburse training costs if they don't stay long enough for the district to recoup its investment.
As Amphi begins requiring accountability from its technology staff in return for training, it will do the same for its bus drivers.
Bus drivers who leave the district fewer than six months after obtaining their commercial driver's licenses will be out $2,000. Those who leave after between six and nine months will be out $1,500, and vacating a bus driving job before a year is up will cost $1,000.
In cases of extenuating circumstances, the district can waive charges, according to bus driver and technology training agreements that the district's governing board approved at its March 8 meeting.
Because costs for training computer techs are much higher than those of training bus drivers, the techs' commitments will be steeper.
Techs who don't work at Amphi for a full two years after receiving their training must reimburse 100 percent of their training expenses. That will drop to 66 percent for those who stay between 24 and 30 months, and to 33 percent for everyone else who doesn't stay three years.
The computer training programs that the district will reimburse for will include a $10,000 and $3,800 certification for the Cisco networking system, a $7,600 and $5,400 certification for the district's Nortel phone system, and a $10,000 certification in Microsoft Systems.
The district's grow-your-own computer techs will not only receive reimbursement for training, they will also receive pay for the hours they spend in classes. Fernandez said that an employee's time in class will vary with the various certification programs, but will always be interspersed with blocks of full-time work for the district.
Fernandez said some companies have been paying for staff certifications for years, as it allows them to tailor what their employees' know-how to their specific needs.
"This allows us to bring in people who have a lot of potential and have the willingness to learn and the desire to be here, and train them," he said.