Is the ‘bootcamp’ market really in the millions?

A new national survey finds that 4 percent of American adults say they are enrolled in a tech bootcamp. Experts on the field say that’s absurdly high—and a sign of widespread public confusion about tech training options and the jobs they open up.

Coding bootcamps have once again captured the popular imagination. College enrollments have fallen substantially during the pandemic—and while there are a lot of reasons, Americans consistently say they’re interested in shorter education and training. Congress, too, is considering a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, which would for the first time allow students to use the grants for education programs that take less than 15 weeks.

The overarching idea is that people need and want greater access to programs that quickly get them work-relevant skills and move them into desirable jobs like those in tech. And a new nationally-representative survey, released last week, now puts the market for tech bootcamps in the millions.

But is it really that big? “No, it’s absolutely not,” said Ryan Craig, managing director of Achieve Partners and a leading analyst of bootcamps and other last-mile training.

Which begs the question: What is going on? The short answer, experts said, is a booming—and complex—market for short training in tech and a confused public. 

“The education and training marketplace is exceptionally confusing—from what constitutes a ‘bootcamp’ or some other type of program, to understanding what knowledge, skills, and abilities are actually delivered in programs and credentials, to being sure of the ultimate value of any credential in advancing a person’s career,” said Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine, a nonprofit that is working to standardize information about the credential market.

Source: “2021 Bootcamp Trends Report” by BestColleges

An ill-defined market

First, the numbers: BestColleges, a popular ranking site for online colleges, contracted with YouGov, an established survey firm, to get some more clarity on the bootcamp market. The organization wanted to assess participation in the programs and drill into what American adults and business leaders think about their value and potential. YouGov surveyed 2,422 adults and 1,000 business leaders across the country and weighted the responses to be nationally representative. (More on the methodology here.)

What the survey found was:

  • Almost three quarters of American adults and 9 in 10 business leaders had heard of tech bootcamps.
  • But only 8 percent of the general public and 19 percent of business leaders knew a “great deal” about them.
  • Nevertheless, about a third of the public and business leaders said bootcamps’ training rivals that of college.

And a shockingly-high 4 percent of adults, the equivalent of almost 8.4 million people, said they were currently enrolled in a bootcamp. “This number was a little unexpected,” said Melissa Venable, an education advisor for BestColleges who analyzed the data.

  • Another 10 percent said they had attended a bootcamp in the past, with half saying they graduated and the other half not completing.

Gut check: Previous tallies of bootcamp enrollment are dramatically smaller. Course Report, which typically does the most comprehensive assessment of the market for coding bootcamps, estimates it was a $350 million industry with more than 25,000 graduates in 2020. Career Karma, a more recent entrant into the bootcamp rating game with support from Y Combinator, looks at the market differently—but it still only puts enrollment at just over 44,000 attendees and graduates last year. Again, tens of thousands of people, not millions.

This is due in part to bootcamps’ cost structure, relative newness, and design. About a decade ago, providers like General Assembly took what Tom Ogletree, vice president of social impact and external affairs at the company, describes as a centuries-old model—accelerated, practitioner-taught, immersive training for adults looking to break into a skilled occupation—and applied it to skill groups like software engineering, data science, and UX design.

(Chris Ried/Unsplash)

Bootcamps specialize in working with college-educated career changers looking to break into high-paying jobs in those fields. Training is intensive, and most students attend full-time for an average of 17 weeks, according to Course Report’s analysis. The average tuition is about $14,000, and because the programs are not accredited, students aren’t eligible to participate in federal aid programs. 

In Course Report’s assessment, only about 100 programs in the United States and Canada meet the “bootcamp” definition. General Assembly, one of the largest such last-mile providers, only serves about 4,000 students in its “career transformation,” or bootcamp, programs each year.

So, what’s going on?

The gap between that market and what Americans believe it to be is yawning. The dominant hypothesis among experts Work Shift talked to is that the new survey findings speak to both:

  • Relatively widespread participation in short, tech-related training,
  • And equally widespread confusion about what all the different kinds of training are.

“The most likely explanation is that short technical training has become synonymous with ‘bootcamp,’” Craig said, “and I would assume the vast majority of respondents are receiving some tech training from their employers that they are interpreting as a bootcamp.”

 The survey itself, defined bootcamps somewhat broadly as:

  • Short, intensive training program designed to prepare students for employment in technical roles in computer sciences and information technology fields, such as cybersecurity, data analysis, and software development.

That means respondents could have been thinking about the independent providers that established the bootcamp model—the General Assembly, Flatiron School, and Hack Reactor types that Course Report and Career Karma assess. Or, Venable says, they could have been referring to the growing number of bootcamp-type programs now offered through traditional colleges and universities.

Still others could plausibly have interpreted tech specializations or even single courses on platforms like Coursera and EdX as counting. The University of Michigan’s Python for Everybody Specialization, offered through Coursera, boasts more than 1.1 million enrollments.

“All combined,” Venable said, “the market for this kind of training—short, intensive, and aligned with specific tech jobs—could be larger than anticipated.”

What this means for worker-learners

Of course, that doesn’t mean all the short-term demand is for bootcamps. For individual learners, though, does the distinction matter? Tom Dawson, interim president and CEO of Strada Education Network, says yes. Tech-related training programs vary significantly in the fundamentals of what they are designed to teach, whom they are intended to serve, the time and money they require, and the job opportunities they open up.

“What often gets overlooked in conversation about the labor market is that working learners face a massive amount of choice—and very little information—when it comes to making decisions about education and training,” he said. “There are precious few signals from employers about what skills will matter and little hard data to help learners understand which will give them the best odds of achieving their goals.”

Bootcamps, for example, are typically designed to layer specific technical competencies on top of an existing base of college-level knowledge and “human” skills. The vast majority of bootcamp graduates have attended college, and many earned a degree. That’s very different from employer-based training, or tech on-ramps and federally-supported partnerships like TechHire that provide training for adults without degrees.

To decide what types of programs are best for them, experts like Dawson and Cheney say, people need to understand those distinctions. That’s why Cheney and Credential Engine are focused on working with states and national and regional associations to create comprehensive, comparable data on credentialing programs that are readily available to the public.

“Quality should be evident and actionable for everyone’s benefit,” Cheney said.

Program providers themselves are a key part of that information-sharing, Ogletree said. “Regardless of the terminology,” he said, “ultimately the onus is on training providers—and regulatory agencies—to ensure that they are properly positioning their offerings and are transparently presenting their outcomes to current and potential learners.”

What employers say

When it comes to job-related training, a major outcome is hiring. The fundamental premise of bootcamps, in particular, is that they provide alternative pathways into high-demand jobs. Yet only 12 percent of all business leaders and just 18 percent of those doing tech hiring said they have actually hired candidates who have completed bootcamp training.

“Bootcamp training may be a viable career pathway for many high-demand tech jobs, but there’s still a gap,” Venable said.

Employers were more likely to encourage existing employees to attend bootcamps to develop advanced skills, the survey found. Three in 10 said they do so. That finding, Venable said, is in line with other studies showing that many bootcamp students are already working in or have experience with a tech field and are looking to augment their existing skills and prepare for advanced roles.

The modest hiring percentages, Craig said, are a direct function of the small size of the bootcamp market, though employers may have taken some latitude with what they considered to be that kind of training.

General Assembly has worked to develop the kind of employer relationships that result in jobs for students, Ogletree said, though it saw hiring outcomes dip last year at the height of the pandemic. Even without the current turbulence in the job market, building new pipelines to jobs takes time.

For example, General Assembly had to work with Adobe’s tech and hiring teams for years to build out their Digital Academy apprenticeship program. “It took time and energy on both sides to ensure that we were meeting their talent needs and we were appropriately supporting the students,” Ogletree said. “Ultimately, we are hoping to open the door to a larger number of job seekers to fields that have been limited to individuals with certain types of degrees or credentials.”

Parting thought: At the end of the day, experts said, better information and guidance are critical to helping learners make sense of the market of bootcamps or other kinds of tech training. A recent report by the Century Foundation built the case for stronger regulatory oversight, particularly of bootcamp partnerships with colleges and universities that “white label” or co-brand training.

For now though, a lot of research and information-sorting will still fall to the individual consumer. 

“Anyone interested in pursuing bootcamp training should take some time to research not only the program and provider options, but also what relevant employers are looking for, whether that’s their current employer or target companies for a future job search,” Venable said. “They can connect with mentors in their professional network, as well as career counselors and coaches, to learn more about how to vet a training program and select a path aligned with their employment and career goals.”

Editor’s note: Strada Education Network, whose interim CEO is quoted in this article, is an underwriter of this publication.

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