When President Barack Obama in March announced his federal TechHire initiative, a program meant to help fill the huge number of vacant technology jobs in the U.S., he honored bus driver turned computer programmer LaShana Lewis.
While growing up under the poverty line in East St. Louis, Ill., Lewis realized she had an interest in coding. She attended Michigan Technical University to study computer science, but she left after three and a half years — just before graduation — because she didn’t have the money. After that, she drove buses and worked at help desks.
“I had the skills,” Lewis said. “I had taken the programming classes. But I didn’t have a degree.”
Then she heard about LaunchCode, a two-year-old nonprofit organization that places apprentices with companies ranging from large corporations to small startups. It’s one program in a growing industry that equips people with tech skills in months, even weeks.
Lewis applied last fall, became an apprentice at MasterCard and was quickly hired full time.
LaunchCode, based in St. Louis, will expand to Kansas City this winter, and it’s not the only program of its type headed this way.
At the root of efforts like LaunchCode, the tech industry needs to fill jobs.
In Kansas City, more than 2,000 technology jobs are vacant. Nationally, that number jumps to half a million, according to the White House.
That figure will continue to grow if the tech sector does not give potential employees the special skills needed to fill these jobs, said Ryan Weber, president of KCNext.
“The demand for coding developers is off the charts,” said John Fein, managing director for TechStars at Kansas City’s Sprint Accelerator.
New players in the education industry promise to solve this equation. Compared to traditional four-year degree programs, these courses teach tech skills through boot camps, coding schools and apprenticeships in under a year.
These groups are multiplying — the sector predicts there will be more than 16,000 graduates of the alternative tech programs in 2015, compared to 6,740 last year — and some are popping up in Kansas City.
“There’s been a lot of discussion and talks from various groups because there’s a lot of opportunity here,” said Weber.
Earlier this summer, LaunchCode received a $250,000 grant from the Missouri Technology Corporation to expand to Kansas City. Since then, LaunchCode has raised $500,000 for the expansion and hopes to find $1 million in funds by fall.
LaunchCode, which also operates in Miami, is betting on finding 60 Kansas City partner companies.
Many other tech education programs are making the same move to Kansas City, Weber said. Plus, job placement company Paige Technologies is developing a tech boot camp that will launch in the fall.
Empowerment by closing the skills gap
LaunchCode is free for apprentices. The company makes its money by charging companies $5,000 for each job placement. More than 90 percent of candidates placed in apprenticeships are ultimately hired full time.
This is good news for people who come from underprivileged backgrounds and lack the financial means or time to invest in a four-year degree.
Forty percent of candidates who enter the program are unemployed, and 42 percent are underemployed with salaries under $25,000. The average starting wage of LaunchCode candidates who finish their apprenticeships, however, is $50,000 — a doubling in wages.
But empowering those who need it most is tricky.
Since LaunchCode was founded, 37 percent of its participants are minorities. This is much lower than St. Louis’ minority population, which makes up 53.6 percent of the city’s residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition, only 26 percent of LaunchCode’s candidates are women. This is about on par with the national rate of women in computing jobs, indicating a dearth of women in the technology industry.
Most coding schools and boot camps charge tuition. The national average price of tuition is $11,063, according to the Course Report. But since these programs are not publicly funded or accredited, they cannot offer federal aid or loans.
Leawood-based training company Centriq, for instance, charges students an average of $20,000 for its four-month courses in application development and network administration.
Centriq does offer private loans, but company president Kevin Grawe said even students who pay the full price upfront will see a quick return on their tuition investment.
More than 90 percent of graduates find jobs in IT, Grawe said, and they are hired with an average starting salary of $41,000 to $45,000.
In fact, most people taking advantage of alternative education programs are not from underprivileged communities.
Rather, the two largest demographic student sectors are professionals learning new skills to switch careers and military veterans returning to the workforce.
These technology programs are particularly useful to these groups of people, who may not want to invest in four more years of education.
Even Kevin Truman, dean of UMKC’s School of Computer and Engineering, said the industry should have alternative paths to finding jobs in technology.
“In STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries, there are all sorts of points of entry,” Truman said. “It’s good to have these different schools.”
These are precisely the type of students who attend the Disruption Institute, according to Michael Gelphman, founder of the Kansas City coding school.
The Disruption Institute teaches mobile application development in a 10-week course for a $6,000 tuition fee. Its second class, a group of 10, finished its course last Thursday.
Gelphman, who is also the founder of Kansas City IT Professionals, decided to launch the Disruption Institute in 2013 when he noticed the need to fill tech jobs in Kansas City.
“When you talk about skill sets, there are certain requirements that get in the way,” Gelphman said. “But if somebody is motivated … then companies will give them a chance and allow them to build up their skill set and build a career.”
The Disruption Institute is still new and relatively small, and it has experienced some growing pains already. For instance, the coding school has lost some teachers to other companies, which made it tough to hit the ground running.
But Gelphman is already seeing some success stories — one graduate now creates apps for IBM in Chicago — and the Disruption Institute’s third course will begin in early September.
You’re hired — maybe
But when it comes to these new education pathways, quality of schooling and job placement are not guaranteed.
People interested in short-term courses should be discerning, Weber said. The best teachers have professional experience, and the curriculum should prioritize real-world projects and working in teams.
In addition, although startups are generally willing to invest in applicants from these programs, larger businesses may be more hesitant to hire applicants without a degree, according to Fein.
It’s important to remember, Weber said, that while this sector is growing at a rapid pace, it’s still in its nascent stages.
“We need way more of these programs and these alternative education schools to compete as a technology hub,” Weber said.