ROCKET CENTER (West Virginia) • A few years ago, Mr Sean Bridges lived with his mother Linda in Wiley Ford, West Virginia.
Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability cheque. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.
Yet, while Mr Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college.
When Mr Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations centre in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills. Now Mr Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making US$45,000 (S$62,000) a year.
In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money - and career ambitions. "I got one big break," he said. "That's what I needed."
In Rocket Center, where rocket engines were once built and some composite materials for US fighter jets are manufactured today, IBM occupies a few buildings and employs 350 people, including Mr Bridges. They are working on cloud computing, cyber security, application development and help desks.
In the last two years, nearly a third of IBM's new hires there and in a few other locations do not have four-year college degrees.
IBM has jointly developed curriculums with the local community college, as well as one-year and two-year courses aligned with its hiring needs. IBM plans to hire up to 250 people at the West Virginia centre this year, including more like Mr Bridges.
"Now, we're recruiting for skills," said Mr Sam Ladah, IBM's vice-president for talent.