Coding Boot Camps: Good Idea

By Eli Dile, IEDC

When you picture a typical workforce development program, what do you see? Maybe an intensive welding class, or tool-and-dye training? Workforce developers have mastered the art of delivering quick, cost-effective training that provides economic opportunity to low-skill workers, while simultaneously helping employers staff hard-to-fill jobs.

But as important as manufacturing employment is, it continues to shrink. So how can the approach be applied to growing technology fields? Fortunately, one such model already exists: coding bootcamps.

TEN-HUT!

Coding bootcamps such as General Assembly, App Academy, and Makersquare challenge the traditional higher education model by teaching in-demand technology skills in a matter of weeks – for a fraction of the cost of a computer science degree. Students attend intensive, multi-week courses that teach software languages such as JavsScript, HTML, and CSS. Immediately after graduating, students are prepared for jobs in web, software, or app development, and can earn starting salaries of $60,000 or more. Some bootcamps even help with job placement upon graduation. App Academy boasts a 98 percent hiring rate for its graduates, and General Assembly maintains hiring partnerships with more than 2,500 companies.

Although most are located in large metros, many offer courses online. And they aren’t intended solely for young people – bootcamps promise new employment trajectories for mid-career professionals and beyond. Many go so far as to claim that “anybody can learn to code.” Their popularity has grown as tech companies continue to lament the persistent U.S. STEM skills gap.

For these reasons, coding bootcamps are gaining recognition as a sort of vocational school for the digital age. Of course, manufacturing and information technology are very different fields, but coding bootcamps and trades training share many commonalities. They’re fast; employer-driven; offer economic mobility; provide new career pathways for people of all ages; and don’t require a college degree for their graduates to get a job.

“Nobody really cares about your education in this field — it’s can you do it, or can you not?” said Matt Kenefick, a web developer who now makes six figures with just a high school degree.

Dev Bootcamp / CC BY 2.0Technology companies have struggled to hire web developers. In 2014, there were 5 million unfilled computing jobs available in the United States. Some companies even express a preference for bootcamp grads or self-trained coders, noting computer science departments at four-year colleges can be slow to update curricula to keep pace with rapidly advancing technology. In 2010, about 38 percent of web developers had less than a four-year college degree, according to Census data.

“Not all programmers who go through college are good programmers,” according to Greg Doermann, chief technology officer of Utah-based Perfect Pitch. “If they fit, it doesn’t matter if they went to college or not.”

Bootcamps seek to address this skills gap by partnering with technology companies and tailoring course offerings to their immediate needs. Although behemoths such as Google still won’t hire those without a bachelor’s degree, opportunities for non-degree holders exist in varying levels across the tech spectrum.

For an institution that didn’t exist a mere five years ago, the coding bootcamp has proliferated across the United States and abroad. They’ve even won the attention of the Oval Office – President Obama’s TechHire initiative is experimenting with them as a new pathway to the middle class.

They’ve piqued the interest of economic developers as well.

Economic and workforce developers test the waters

In Nevada, after winning the location of Tesla’s “giga-factory,” the state created several IT-focused workforce grants designed to rapidly scale its tech workforce, including an “employer-driven information technology bootcamp” in Henderson. Hennepin County, Minnesota, has incorporated bootcamps into its larger IT-focused workforce development initiatives. And the Indiana Economic Development Corporation has recognized their value, providing $1.3 million in incentives to help Carmel-based Eleven Fifty Academy expand.

“Eleven Fifty plays a crucial role in helping Hoosiers develop the skills they’ll need to work at growing companies across our state,” remarked Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellspermann during the award announcement.

Although bootcamps cost far less than the average bachelor’s degree, they’re still not cheap. Most cost about $10,000, and because they’re unaccredited, students can’t access federal loans to pay for them. But community colleges are increasingly adopting the model, providing comparable service at a lower cost.

Central New Mexico Community College’s Deep Dive Coding Boot Camp provides intensive tech training and is used by the New Mexico Partnership as a business attraction tool. Cleveland has emerged as a competitive tech city, complete with fast-track coding courses at the Cuyahoga Community College. Last year, Vancouver-based Lighthouse Labs was contracted by the government of Yukon to launch a remote bootcamp for students in Whitehorse.

Coding and economic mobility

Bootcamps have already provided new career paths for frustrated liberal arts grads who were unable to apply their education in the job market. As entry-level tech jobs pay far better than those in retail or food service, coding also is increasingly viewed as a new source of economic mobility for minorities and disadvantaged groups, much as manufacturing was viewed in the 20th century.

“If they fit, it doesn’t matter if they went to college or not.”

It’s hard not to be inspired by their successes. Tech’s diversity problem is well documented, and organizations such as Code Now are breaking down barriers for inner-city youth.  In Detroit, Sisters Code is a women-only organization that aims to provide new, more-lucrative career pathways for its students. The Last Mile is teaching software development to inmates doing time in San Quentin prison. And in Pikeville, Kentucky, startup Bitsource is attempting to turn out-of-work coal miners into Appalachia’s first wave of techies. Even Prince recognized their potential.

Great potential, but caveat emptor

The notion that “anyone can learn to code” is a bit of hyperbole, though it’s true that anyone with at least some aptitude and a sincere desire to learn can become a web developer. Some bootcamps offer introductory courses so students can determine whether a career in tech is right for them. Because their scope is far narrower than a four-year computer science degree, a bootcamp grad will have fewer career options. And technology is constantly evolving, so if entry-level tech workers want to advance, or even stay relevant in their current positions, they will have to be lifelong learners.

Coding bootcamps are still a new phenomenon, and some fear a gold-rush mentality will make it easy for less scrupulous ones to fleece desperate job-seekers out of thousands. The classes are unregulated, and some observers have expressed skepticism over job-placement rates, which are self-reported. (The industry as a whole could do a better job with transparency in this regard.) And even though they’re advertised as a bargain compared to a computer science degree, they’re still far from cheap.

However, community colleges’ embrace of the bootcamp model is ameliorating many concerns over cost and accreditation. And as far as ensuring students will have a job after they graduate, nobody knows the hiring needs of local companies better than the economic developer. For regions that are growing their tech sectors, it’s a model that may be worth exploring.

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