As the pandemic, followed by a recession, thrashed the economy in 2020, a kind of unicorn hunt began within the American workforce.
Where were the well-paying jobs that not only could be done remotely but also could withstand financial headwinds?
Internet technology (IT) appeared to be one example of that mythical creature. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by CompTIA, tech employment in the United States climbed back to close to a pre-pandemic normal in late 2020, after a dip early in the year, to reach approximately 4.7 million workers. And while postings for available jobs have shrunk, hiring activity for IT project managers and software developers remains strong.
The relative resilience of the tech workspace has led to an expansion in education — and education models — for potential tech workers. Tech jobs were central to “Find Something New,” a 2020 White House initiative that encouraged people who were looking for new or better-paying jobs to pick up new skills or upgrade their current ones.
But a 12-week boot camp in Java programming doesn’t necessarily make a hireable programmer. There are cultural, financial and educational-modality issues tied up in IT training that can make the industry a challenge for job-changers. (Which is why “just learn to code!” has become a snarky retort to industry pundits who neglect those challenges.) Realistic options for career changers involve the kinds of training, supports and a sense of a positive economic outcome, if not direct financial support.
“Offering some kind of financial incentive [for learners] is really important,” said Laura Roberts, a director at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that partners with education and industry to provide training programs in IT.
“Otherwise, you are essentially going to get a group of people who can afford to either leave their existing job or take a pay cut to transition into these career tracks. That’s not something that’s really accessible or doable for many people.”
Employers, along with nonprofit and for-profit educational firms, have been working to address such issues, using a mix of training methods and support tools, with some success. Learning to code isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be. But the pandemic has prompted some creativity when it comes to job training, potentially setting the table for a more inclusive job-training environment in the future.
An Uptick In Training
Unsurprisingly, free or low-cost online training in IT has spiked during the pandemic. Alison.com, which specializes in free online tech education, says it has seen a 133% increase in IT course enrollments and a 228% jump in course completions in 2020, compared to 2019. “We’ve also seen a change in the type of courses our learners have signed up for,” said Alison.com’s Head of Marketing Gillian Loos, who notes a new emphasis on courses in personal digital safety and cybersecurity.
Coding Dojo, a company that provides in-person and online boot camps in programming languages, has also experienced a growth in interest. Luke Lappala, director of communications for the company, says it’s seen the highest levels of applications and enrollments since its founding in 2013. “With COVID, I think a lot of people realized that their job wasn’t quite as futureproof as they wanted it to be,” he said.
“Offering some kind of financial incentive [for learners] is really important … otherwise, you are essentially going to get a group of people who can afford to either leave their existing job or take a pay cut to transition into these career tracks.”
A survey the company conducted of students last summer offers a snap- shot of the kind of career changers the industry is attracting. Among the students who enrolled last July, August and September, for instance, 46% reported that their employment had been impacted by COVID-19; two-thirds were making $50,000 or less annually; and 60% had only a high-school diploma, some college or an associate degree. Moreover, many were coming from industries unrelated to IT, such as hospitality and transportation.
That’s put more pressure on companies like Coding Dojo to provide a support system at the start and tail ends of learners’ coursework through its career services department. “We’ll do mock interviews with them to explore what they really want out of a job,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘I want a job for more money,’ but we try to dive a little bit deeper and see what would make them happy and then try to steer them toward applicable careers from there.”
(The company’s internal research found that 89% of its learners found a relevant job within six months of graduating, though that figure does not include data for the 2020 cohort.)
Generation USA, an educational nonprofit that focuses on underserved populations, has also seen an uptick in tech training, to the point where in 2020, it reduced its courses in other fields like hospitality and health care. But the organization has found that providing “wraparound” supports for those learners is more important as they enter a field where they may have newly acquired skills but which has an unfamiliar culture, said Rachel Shannon, U.S. Development Officer at Generation USA. And it dedicates staff accordingly, via coaches.
“They may need child care support, or have trouble with transportation, or getting work-appropriate clothing,” said Shannon. “If they have to have a difficult conversation with a manager or supervisor, they practice that with their coaches. Many people do not have a safety net or experienced professionals around them in their personal lives.”
Belle Fleur Technologies, a Miami cloud-computing firm, has worked with Generation USA through the pandemic to provide internships to 40 participants in Generation’s training program.
Tia Dubuisson, president and co-founder of Belle Fleur, found that pairing personal and professional guidance has been essential to new learners’ success. “Generation played that role in providing graduates with some of those services. If they needed child care when we were meeting in person, if they needed transportation, they handled all of that,” she says. “We thought it was a perfect marriage of being enabled personally and professionally, from our side professionally and from a personal standpoint, Generation. Both are needed in any day and age, but especially now.”
More Training Options
Despite the challenges for new entrants to the field, the tech industry is generally more open to new entrants, according to Sara Lamback, a director at Jobs for the Future. First, it accommodates remote work better than many other industries. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s more open to hiring from people who don’t have a college degree, so long as they’ve acquired the relevant credentials in programming languages or other types of IT expertise.
“A lot of people say, ‘I want a job for more money,’ but we try to dive a little bit deeper and see what would make them happy and then try to steer them toward applicable careers from there.”
To that end, JFF has found that a host of “on-ramps” are available for new entrants. Boot camps and bridge programs can get a learner up to speed quickly on a particular area and close gaps for prerequisites; certificate programs, often offered in partnership with community colleges, can provide training alongside college credit; apprenticeships and internships can introduce learners from underserved communities to the field early and provide experience.
In some cases, companies have taken on that kind of training entirely internally. Finance company Capital One focuses on diverse and non-tech training through its Capital One Developer Academy, and the group-chat company Slack provides tech training for formerly incarcerated individuals through its Next Chapter program.
“Over the past year, there have been companies building in these kinds of boot camps or apprenticeship programs as part of their hiring process and talent pipelines,” said Lamback. “And I think many of them have seen it as a way to increase diversity in their talent pool.”
Determining which training model works best is a function of what both the company and potential employee needs. Boot camps benefit from expediency, but without extra assistance (such as what Generation provides in its partnership with Belle Fleur, for example), it’s probably a better fit for more self-di- rected and experienced learners, JFF’s research has found.
Lappala concurs. “Our programs are very beginner-friendly, but to succeed in the program the common denominator is grit and determination. We don’t shy away from how hard the program is and how much time we expect students to put in.”
For those with less experience, JFF has found that training that allows for more flexibility — asynchronous learning, for instance — and training partners can be more helpful. In 2018, JFF launched a partnership with Google and community colleges (now expanded to 20 states) to train lower-income individuals in Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate, which is transferable to entry-level tech positions at a variety of companies.
Thus far, JFF’s 40% of participants in the program are women or people of color, “which is much, much larger than what you see in the IT sector writ large,” said Lamback.
One of the challenges that remains is that access to the breadth of training options is still a function of location. Anybody can take a 12-week boot camp online, but there’s a rural-urban divide when it comes to internet access and available guidance. “We’ve [seen] some really strong successes in larger labor markets and large metro areas because there’s a much different employer base,” said Lamback.
“Over the past year, there have been companies building in these kinds of boot camps or apprenticeship programs as part of their hiring process and talent pipelines. And I think many of them have seen it as a way to increase diversity in their talent pool.”
“We did see that it was much more difficult for some of our smaller colleges and those in rural areas to create those employer connections and help support that transition from this training program into employment- or work- based learning opportunity or some other direct on-ramp to the IT sector.”
Regardless of background, training up a new generation of job-changers will ultimately challenge employers to manage for mindset as well as skillsets, said Dubuisson.
“We’ve found that success depends on the work ethic of a person — the willingness to be able to knock out the training program and get the hours under their belt. When we start to see them deliver over a short period of time, and when we are coaching around effort and not just deliverables, at the end of the day, those people are successful.”