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About 500 soldiers leave the military every month in Colorado Springs, and now the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy is bridging the gap to civilian careers in information technology.

MSSA and Fort Carson celebrated Friday as 24 soldiers entered the inaugural class at Catalyst Campus for Technology & Innovation.

"Coming out of the military, this seems like the best thing to do," said new student Jesse Sutton. "I'm feeling really confident."

The 18-week accelerated program trains active-duty service members for IT careers.

"Creating this resource is a tangible way to give back to the service men and women and their spouses who do so much for our country," said Mayor John Suthers.

Program graduates can meet the industry's high demand for cloud developers and administrators in database, cloud and business intelligence fields.

"Finding IT personnel for many businesses is a huge challenge," said Thomas Dawkins, Microsoft's director of workforce development and education.

The average salary for an IT professional is $70,000, Dawkins said.

"I was an IT guy in the military, and I really wanted to expand my skillset," Sutton said.

Training goes beyond technology by expanding problem-solving skills, teamwork and critical thinking, said Aaron Glassman, chairman of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Department of Management and Technology. Microsoft is in partnership with Embry-Riddle.

Service members don't need an IT background to join the program; a strong interest is enough.

"I was always fascinated by computers, and when I saw this program, I thought it would be a great path," said new student Meshack Koyiaki.

Ninety percent of graduates get IT jobs or finish their college degrees, Microsoft reported. Graduates have gone on to work for more than 200 companies, including Dell, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Accenture and Facebook, as well as the Department of Defense.

"Even if I don't get a job, in the future I'll see a position asking for the knowledge I gained from the program," Koyiaki said.

The government estimates IT occupations will grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations.

"Once you have that knowledge, no one is going to take that away from you," Koyiaki said.