By Sharyn Jackson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).
When Victor Chege fell asleep behind the wheel after working 30 hours straight, he knew it was time for a change.
He’d just finished a shift as a nursing assistant, then went straight to his job cleaning houses without eating or sleeping. He’d often pulled all-nighters in an effort to pay his bills and send money to his family back home in Kenya, but this time was different.
“I was driving and dozing,” he said, “and that’s when I realized, I can jeopardize my life just chasing money that wasn’t enough.”
Chege enrolled in IT-Ready, a fast-paced, boot camp-style program that coaches students to become certified for computer user support positions. These accelerated learning programs help put Minneapolis on the map as a TechHire city, a White House initiative launched last year. The goal of the initiative is to fill the mounting talent gap in the technology workforce by connecting new trainees — including women and minorities — with the employers who need them, and not just in traditional tech hubs like San Francisco and New York.
Within a few months of graduation, Chege, 33, started a full-time job with benefits as an IT service desk agent for the city of Minneapolis. Like one of the nearly 200 people in Minneapolis who attended a coding boot camp last year, he now has an in-demand skill set that landed him a good-paying job.
“I would say this is the best job I ever had,” he said, “I’m proud to tell people what I do.”
Entry-level salaries for students coming out of the local programs — including IT-Ready, Prime Digital Academy, the Software Guild and the Iron Yard — average around $46,000. Experienced software developers make a median annual wage of $98,000, according to government statistics. For students from non-computer backgrounds that means a major pay bump.
Clare Jacky, a Prime graduate, agrees. Jacky, who used to work part-time in small-business management, said she’s doubled her income since graduating and getting a job as a software engineer.
“It’s an incredible change for me,” said Jacky, 30. “We can actually address some of our loan debt or go on vacation.”
There are more than half a million vacant computer and IT jobs in the country. As more industries go digital, another half a million jobs are expected to be added by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tech jobs in Minnesota are 1.2 times more concentrated than in the nation overall. That’s why Minneapolis is behind the push to train tech workers.
“If we can make it easier for [companies] to get the employees they need, it’s an upward spiral of success for the city,” said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.
The city of Minneapolis has allocated $350,000 toward the TechHire initiative for 2016 and is competing for $100 million in grants to expand the offerings. Deb Bahr-Helgen, director of Minneapolis Employment and Training, said there are plans to branch out to the seven-county region and to target more people who are underrepresented in these fields, specifically women and minorities.
To get people into the workforce as quickly as possible, the programs are short, often eight to 12 weeks. And while some programs require students to complete assignments on their own, students don’t need prior experience with computers. The programs are stocked with grocery clerks, janitors, hairstylists, receptionists and artists — and that’s deliberate.
“I believe that something as important as the future of everything demands a broader spectrum of people working on these problems, so that it’s not just a roomful of late-20s white dudes that are making decisions on behalf of all humanity,” said Mark Hurlburt, co-founder and president of Prime.
To attract that broader spectrum, Prime offers an automatic scholarship for people of color and women who are accepted into the program. This spring, IT-Ready will offer a course just for women.
In addition to classes in hardware or coding, the boot camps also focus on “soft skills” like communication and public speaking. At Prime, instructors help students fight the impression that they don’t belong in a field long dominated by the stereotypical “computer nerd.”
“You don’t have to be such a technologically deep nerd to be able to leverage technology,” said Darin Lynch, founder of Minneapolis digital agency Irish Titan. The one Prime graduate that Lynch already has hired used to work in oil fields.
Despite the growing popularity of boot camps, computer science degrees at colleges and universities are still going strong.
“We’re having difficulty admitting all the people who would like to do coding,” said Mike Whalen, director of the Software Engineering Center at the University of Minnesota. “Our classes are completely packed.”
Whalen likens learning code to learning a language.
“In 10 weeks you can learn all the parts of speech, what subjects and verbs mean, how to put sentences together, but you’re not going to be a great writer,” he said. “To do that, you have to have a broader understanding of literature. … You’re not going to get that in a 12-week code camp.”
But for those who have gone through a boot camp, the payoffs are becoming apparent.
In the six months since Emily Flower graduated from the Software Guild, she is taking on new responsibilities in her job as a software engineer, and she now makes 30 percent more than she did as a hairstylist.
“It’s exciting and the security is huge,” she said, “knowing I’m a single mom with two kids to take care of, and I am not worried about having a job in the future.”