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Students work on individual projects in a Science and Math Computer Programming course.
LaunchCode takes students out of the classroom and places them in full-time, paid apprenticeships. Photo: Seattle Central College.

For those who want to start a career in tech, the pathway can be difficult — despite the stunning scarcity of tech talent that has companies scrambling to hire qualified engineers. Even in this environment, stellar coders can spend months job hunting without success.

But an age-old approach may be the solution to this high-tech problem: apprenticeships.

Thanks to the TechHire Seattle-King County program, Seattle will be home to the newest branch of LaunchCode starting January 2017. This apprenticeship program places students with basic software skills in full-time, paid apprenticeships for up to 6 months, with the expectation of staying on as permanent employees.

Square co-founder Jim McKelvey founded LaunchCode in 2013 to help qualified candidates find jobs.
Square co-founder Jim McKelvey founded LaunchCode in 2013 to help qualified candidates find jobs.

LaunchCode is a core partner in the TechHire program along with Seattle Central College and bootcamps like Ada Developers Academy, which also offer apprenticeships. The program was recently awarded $3.8 million from the Obama Administration’s TechHire initiative, and will also be supported by $4.4 million from local philanthropists.

TechHire plans to work with employers like Sendachi, Skytap and Moz to train and place 2,000 Seattle residents in tech jobs by 2020, and LaunchCode will be a central part of transitioning students into full-time work.

The inspiration for LaunchCode began in 2009 when Square co-founders Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey were struggling to find qualified engineers in their native St. Louis, Fast Company reports. McKelvey couldn’t understand why finding talent was such a huge struggle when there were so many degree programs and bootcamps.

Four years later, after relocating to San Francisco for better access to talent, McKelvey realized the problem: having technical skill was not enough. Barriers like having the wrong degree or not looking the part left many qualified candidates overlooked, while the tech industry starved for talent.

McKelvey founded LaunchCode in 2013 to tackle this problem, and the program now has branches in St. Louis, Kansas City, Rhode Island, and South Florida.

Cynthia Tee, executive director of Ada Developer's Academy, a tuition-free coding school for women.
Cynthia Tee, executive director of Ada Developer’s Academy, said their apprenticeship program is integral to helping students find work.

Seattle is no stranger to this talent gap.

With some estimating that there are thousands of tech jobs going unfilled each year in Seattle, Cynthia Tee — executive director of Ada Developers Academy, also part of TechHire — says that the apprenticeship element of Ada’s program is integral to helping their students fill this gap.

“You can only learn so much in a classroom,” Tee said. During apprenticeships, students learn social and technical skills that are difficult to learn during Ada’s classes, and also get a foot in the industry’s door, she said.

But as important as apprenticeships are for students, they can also be key for employers, particularly with respects to hiring practices.

“I think it is a good training for companies to be more inclusive of candidates who are not like them,” Tee said. This is an important skill for employers, as the tech industry that has more jobs than can be filled by those with a traditional computer science background.

Unlike Ada, LaunchCode does not offer classes, and instead takes on students who have basic coding skills and places them directly into full-time work. Students learn on the job in areas like mobile product development, programming, and web design, gaining valuable skills while still being able to pay rent.

LaunchCode Communications Director Jamie Corley says the program is fundamentally different from bootcamps because of this ease of access — many students can’t afford to take on full-time education, or don’t have the flexibility to work and take classes due to other responsibilities.

According to LaunchCode’s website, 80 percent of their participants do not have a degree in computer science, and 90 percent are employed full-time by the end of the program.

In Seattle, LaunchCode could have cohorts of up to 150 students each year, Corley said.

While finding qualified candidates is important, opening the tech field to those who do not fit the typical tech employee profile is essential for companies to keep up with industry growth. Apprenticeships may be the way to clear a path for those workers, and find a win-win solution for employers and employees alike.

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