For the last five months, six middle-age, out-of-work parents have been cramming their brains with information about medical billing, patient privacy, hardware, software, and customer service.
If all goes according to plan, they will graduate in May with four industry certifications and a job offer from one of the many Montgomery County companies in need of their newfound skills - NextGen, Teva Pharmaceuticals, SunGard, Unisys, etc.
"If I could just get my foot in the door, I feel like I could show off my talents and work my way up," said Stuart Novey, 48, of Ambler.
Novey and his classmates spend 25 hours a week at Montgomery County Community College's Pottstown campus as part of a $2 billion U.S. Labor Department effort to get the nation's displaced workers back on their feet.
In Pennsylvania, it started with a $20 million program, JobTrakPA. Each of the state's 14 community colleges designed programs to meet the needs of local businesses.
Community College of Philadelphia is training solar-panel installers and sustainable-building inspectors. Harrisburg Area Community College is targeting the natural gas industry and advanced manufacturing.
In Montgomery County, eight of the 15 biggest private-sector employers are in health care or information technology or both, according to the county Economic Development Corp. The college projects 200 new job openings in health-care IT just in Montgomery County.
College officials spent about a year meeting with business leaders and designing a curriculum. The six Pottstown students will be the first to test its efficacy.
On Thursday, they will face their first exam: the A+ certification.
Jamie Warren of Green Lane Borough said she felt prepared but was eager to get it over.
"Once I take one of the exams, I might know how to study better," said Warren, 50, a mother of three whose work as a part-time teacher has been dwindling over the last few years.
Novey was more confident: "Oh, yeah," he said, they are all going to pass.
Novey ran his family's auto shop in Norristown for many years until the economy tanked and it closed. He spent a couple of years going to recruiters and scouring the newspapers for job openings. But all of the jobs he found were commission-based, and he wanted a more stable paycheck.
Warren and Novey were looking at college as a means to shift careers. But other JobTrakPA participants took some persuading to get back in the classroom, said Suzanne Holloman, director of workforce development at Montgomery County Community College.
A big part of the JobTrakPA program, Holloman said, is removing roadblocks so students "get to the classroom ready to learn." Staff can help students arrange child care, find transportation, and get remedial training if needed. In the final weeks, a career adviser helps them write resumés and practice for job interviews.
The 33-week health-care IT program costs $3,450, including the fees for four exams. That's about half what the college would charge for normal classes, and half of the students receive additional financial aid, Holloman said.
In addition to the six Pottstown students, there are 16 students taking the classes part time in Blue Bell. Montco is also offering a few JobTrakPA classes in manufacturing and green-energy technology.
But all of those programs are in the early stages - whereas at Harrisburg Area Community College, the first classes started and finished last spring. Kim Kaufman, director of workforce development at the college, said 125 students had already graduated and 40 had gotten full-time jobs.
Statewide, the goal is to serve 3,807 students through fall 2014, and to place at least 69 percent of them in well-paying, long-term jobs.
Those goals are a ways off, but Kaufman said the schools were starting to gain momentum. "The first year we all understood was going to be an organizing year, a testing year," he said. Classes have been tweaked and services added to meet the needs of this demographic.
With older workers, Kaufman said, you sometimes need to teach "the soft skills. The interview, resumé, cover letter, job-search skills. . . . They're not used to the idea that they need an e-mail address to apply for a job."
That problem doesn't apply to the health-care IT students. They needed at least a year of experience with computers in order to qualify.
Novey and Warren said each student brings some useful experience to class.
Warren has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of North Carolina. But that was 30 years ago, she said, and with computers, "it changes in three or four years. Unless you're in a position where you're dealing with it every day," your skills get rusty.
One woman worked in medical billing; another was a nutritionist in India. One man was certified in IT until a few years ago, but he mainly worked with hardware, not software.
Now, they're learning all of those things at once.
"It's a lot of material in that short of time," Novey said. "Hopefully, the employers will look at that and see it as a plus."
Spending so much time together - one teacher called it a "boot camp style of learning" - has helped the students bond. Novey said they usually stay after class to do their homework together.
"We all have families, you know, so we like to get it done before we go home."