BY Preston ForeAugust 10, 2023, 4:41 PM
Photo illustration by Fortune; Original photo courtesy of Marcus Zollicoffer
Following the birth of his first son, Marcus Zollicoffer decided it was time to start thinking more seriously about his career. He had only a few college credits to his name and he needed to support his growing family.
With his side jobs not cutting it, he secured a job as a cable technician—his first introduction to the technical field. But not long after, reality set in: With rising costs of daycare and everyday essentials, his and his wife’s income still wasn’t making ends meet.
“One of us was just working just to pay somebody else to watch the kids,” Zollicoffer tells Fortune.
Zollicoffer chose to return to bartending in the evenings, which would allow him to watch his son and newly born daughter during the day while his wife worked.
Then the pandemic hit. With restaurants closed, Zollicoffer was out of a job and was once again left asking himself where he was supposed to go next with his career.
This all-too familiar struggle is the reality many families face: stuck living paycheck to paycheck and bouncing through low wage jobs. In fact, around 52 million workers and their families—earn less than $15 an hour, according to Oxfam.
With no one hiring, Zollicoffer started looking for new ways to get ahead, like going back to school or attending a tech bootcamp. That’s when he found his saving grace: Merit America, a nonprofit workforce development program.
He enrolled in the program’s Java coding course, enabling him to jumpstart his career in the tech world. As a Merit America alum, Zollicoffer works in IT as a junior systems administrator. His salary? Over $60,000 annually—nearly triple what it was before.
Fortune sat down with Zollicoffer to learn more about his experience with Merit America tech training and his new career as a junior IT systems administrator.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
No experience required
Fortune: What did you like the most about the Merit America program, and maybe something you didn’t?
Zollicoffer: It was difficult because I didn’t have the background, so I was a blank canvas. I knew nothing. But the thing I know for sure, is you need to be very self-driven.
Because at least from when I was going through, there wasn’t really anybody behind me saying, ‘hey, you need to do this, you have to do this.’ So, you need to be very, very self-driven. So luckily, I’ve always been that, so I was able to fight through. I had to fight to understand half the time. Honestly, by the end of the week of a certain subject, I still had no clue what it was. It wasn’t until maybe even months later until something clicked in my head.
They’re accelerated programs, so it’s all a lot of information in and you can be easily overwhelmed if you really don’t kind of know how to manage your time and push through it.
Even though I love the program, and what it did for me and what it did for a lot of people, do know it’s not for everybody. So that’s the kind of good and the bad. It’s a tough few months to push through. But if you can, I think you will definitely give you all the tools you need to keep going.
Greater financial security
Fortune: How has your salary change impacted your life?
Zollicoffer: A lot of stress that we used to have, me and my wife talk about this all the time—we’ve definitely had our car repossessed, we’ve definitely had to go to court for being late on rent, we have had to leave an apartment before because we couldn’t keep up with the payments—ever since then, we haven’t thought about it.
We’re able to actually balance a budget because we actually can make one. So, we’re not completely starting just in the negative after paying all our bills. One of my kids is in karate, the other one’s in dance, and I have a smaller one, so next year, he’s gonna be in karate, so we can get them into activities—summer camp, we’re able to pay for summer camp.
We talked about this all the time where if we were on the same path that we were on, we have no clue how any of this would have been possible.
Getting ahead with flexibility
Fortune: What made a program like Merit America stick out to you, versus going back to school or doing a more traditional bootcamp program?
Zollicoffer: The thing that stood out to me was the potential of getting a job making $50,000 or more, and, of course, the program costs.
I like the field that I’m in now, but my biggest goal was to take care of my family—I want to take care of myself, I want us to be in a better position, I want us to have the ability to be able to save, do a lot of different things.
Push yourself over the finish line
Fortune: What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in a program like Merit America or breaking into the world of tech?
Zollicoffer: If you’re a person like me, where you’re coming very fresh, very new, just understand it is an accelerated program. So, think of it as a steep climb, whereas while you’re going through the program, it feels like information overload. But my suggestion is to let all the information wash over you, keep participating, keep showing up, keep saying yes.
After the program is over, my advice would be to take all the information you learn, and then start stretching it out. So, if you found an area that you really like, whether it was front-end coding, back-end coding, networking, whatever it is, that’s your time to take your time and really dive into that information.
Once the program is over, your learning shouldn’t be over. That should just be where you maybe find your niche or your place you want to be—that would be my recommendation.
Keep in contact with the people in the program, because they’ll keep feeding you information. Helping you doesn’t stop when the program is over, they’re still there to help you even after the program is over. So, utilize all those resources and keep pushing. You can definitely get through it and make it.