You can’t spell “training” without “AI.” 

With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming more prominent in virtually every industry — from healthcare and public safety to business, cybersecurity, manufacturing and more – California’s career education providers can’t help but keep up. As demand for AI experts continues to grow, California’s Community Colleges are collaborating with tech companies like Microsoft to stay on pace with the rapidly evolving sector. 

Rick Hodge, current associate vice president of Instruction & Workforce at Sacramento City College, was serving as dean in CTE/Workforce Development at Los Angeles Southwest College (LASC) when he connected with representatives from the Microsoft team. 

“I challenged Microsoft and I said, ‘Hey, if you guys really want to have an impact with our students, why don’t we attempt to develop the first AI certificate in Southern California?’" he recalls. 

The partnership with Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) kicked off with a faculty-focused bootcamp, in which Microsoft representatives versed instructors with a comprehensive background in AI. After the bootcamp’s initial success, Hodge and Naja El Khoury, Computer Science Professor at Los Angeles Southwest College, assisted in staging a virtual Microsoft Azure Summit for students, faculty, and staff across the district back in 2020. 

The Summit presented attendees with a positive portrait of AI-focused career path, with custom advice available from experts and professionals in the field. It also cleared the way for the creation of a certificate program focusing on specialized skills required for a career in artificial intelligence. 

“We ended up having about 1,300 people attend, including 800 students,” Hodge reflects. “Microsoft provided everything. We also featured an AI panel of Microsoft representatives that I chaired, engaging students and faculty on AI’s impact in a diversity of industry sectors.

“It went off really well.”

With more than 80,000 unfilled cyber-positions currently available in California, the need for an AI certificate program is timelier than ever. The AI program at LASC covers the curriculum necessary for students to land entry-level jobs as data analysts, data engineers, AI specialists, machine learning engineers and more. Students in these entry-level positions can command salaries starting at $60,000. 

“The entry-level career depends on their experience,” notes El Khoury. "If you're getting a certificate in networking, you could be doing anything that has to do with networking, from a network administrator, to even installing the network operating system... For someone going into AI, that means they need more of a programming experience." 

The relationship with Microsoft continues to pave the way for other college initiatives, including a cloud computing certificate program through the California Cloud Workforce Project. The initiative partners with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create curriculum that centers around AWS certifications and cloud computing careers. 

“We started with Amazon doing this certificate. This is when Rick met with Microsoft,” explains El Khoury. "He said, ‘look what AWS is doing,’ and Microsoft started bringing in their resources.” 

The program now seeks to expand into Microsoft's own cloud computing platform, Azure. El Khoury says he recently submitted a proposal to the state to take the Azure partnership even further. 

"I see the potential for it to go from a certificate to a bachelor’s degree," says Khoury. "My intent is to work closely with Microsoft to develop that." 

Microsoft also offers internship opportunities to college students in tech-related bachelor's programs. These positions can lead to networking opportunities or even paid positions within the company. Other educational opportunities include LASC’s dual enrollment program, which El Khoury promotes to high school students in order to share the value of computer science career pathways at their local community college. 

“When I go to present to a high school … I encourage the counselors and students to make a full commitment to the certificate program,” the professor explains. “When I show them the benefit of completing the whole certificate, you can see they have options."

Thanks to the department’s flexibility, students can earn a certificate at LASC before transferring to a partner university. They’d also have the option to level up to a bachelor’s degree program, or even continue to add stackable certificates to expand their earning power. 

Now working with Sacramento City College in the state’s capital, Hodge is hoping to continue to expand the Microsoft AI certificate program into the north. 

“We have Microsoft partners here ready to go,” says the VP. “They’re happy to work with us on this.”