Work Shift Explainer
The reboot in tech training
Technology increasingly drives our entire economy.
The banking giant JPMorgan Chase now bills itself as a tech company. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is finally putting up a challenge to Amazon’s e-commerce business. And telehealth took off during the pandemic, with major players like Anthem, CVS Health, and UnitedHealthcare all making big investments. Even Medicare has gotten on board.
The rise of tech is the major shift in our economy and culture over the past generation—but so many of the jobs needed to power the new tech economy are still being filled as if it is the 1990s.
You know the drill: get a bachelor’s degree from a big-name college, ace an interview for a selective internship with a big tech firm, and go on to a six-figure job with stock options and growth potential. Or else, get an associate degree or workforce training designed for the kind of IT job that is increasingly hard to find these days, after years of being offshored or automated.
The big idea: For an industry that is all about constant optimization, the hiring pathway hasn’t evolved as much as you might think. That is why Google’s announcement of a $100 million training fund to help 20,000 workers move into roles like UX design and Android development is such big news.
Not only is the company betting big on a new kind of training—its own Career Certificates program—but the initiative also involves two partners, Merit America and Year Up, who are among an emerging cadre of nonprofits rethinking how the country recruits and trains workers for tech. In other initiatives, Google is working with community colleges and technical high schools to modernize their curricula by embedding its certificates.
Google’s announcement follows on other big investments by the likes of Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft into new training pathways for in-demand roles like software and app development. Apprenticeships in tech also have taken off in the past couple years—with the number of registered programs growing 41 percent between fall 2020 and fall 2021, according to a Work Shift analysis of federal data.
In other words, momentum for change is building—even if it’s been slow to come.
“We’ve seen a change in the calculus for employers in the tech industry in ways that we wouldn’t have seen five years ago,” Angela Hanks, acting assistant secretary for the Employment and Training Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor, told Work Shift.
Over the next month, we’ll take a closer look at new and evolving pathways—both degree and nondegree—into high-demand tech jobs. We start this week with a Work Shift Explainer on apprenticeships.
Here, we take a broader look at the flurry of activity, starting with the story of two providers: CodePath and LaunchCode.
Work Shift Explains: Tech Pathways
Part 1: Apprenticeships grow into tech: Registered apprenticeship programs in tech have grown more than 41 percent in the past year. In this Work Shift Explainer we take a deeper look at tech apprenticeships, with a focus on how they work, who pays for them, and who benefits from them. We also spotlight outcomes, from program completion rates to graduates’ earnings.
Part 2: A new language for CS degrees: Degree programs are a tried-and-true path into the top jobs in tech, but many learners get lost along the way. Now, programs are evolving to rethink what it means to work, learn, and make it in tech. In this explainer, we take a look at diversity in computer science, the ROI of degree programs, and what’s changing.
Part 3: Making sense of tech bootcamps, coding schools, and on-ramps. As their popularity has grown, bootcamps have become a catchall term for short tech training. In this explainer, we disentangle the world of bootcamps, coding schools, and on-ramps.
Attacking tech’s gnarly talent and opportunity problems
CodePath is focused on changing degrees. It embeds its training in computer science programs, mostly at four-year institutions below the top tier where tech employers usually recruit. The nonprofit provides the specialized coursework, coaching, and employer connections that students need to graduate and land top jobs.
“We want to diversify the nation’s most competitive technical roles,” says Michael Ellison, CodePath’s founder and CEO.
That quest runs through college internships, he says. For the most desirable technical jobs, 80 to 90 percent of entry-level hires are made through internship programs for students in four-year programs. At Salesforce, says Ellison, it’s 100 percent. “If you’re trying to do anything that isn’t a degree pathway, you’re competing for a small slice of real estate.”
LaunchCode, on the other hand, focuses on just about everything else. Its sights aren’t set on the nation’s top software engineering jobs—though some of the nonprofit’s grads land them—but on solid, high-growth roles that can keep workers and their families squarely in the middle class. The kinds of midlevel developer jobs that build economies and lift up communities in places like St. Louis.
“We want our demographics to reflect the region,” says Jeffrey Mazur, the nonprofit’s executive director.
LaunchCode offers several on-ramp programs, a bootcamp, and apprenticeships. It does customized talent recruitment and training for companies like Microsoft and internal upskilling for Comcast and others. Learners who complete their various programs, on average, go from earning about $45,000 a year to $66,000, plus benefits.
Different as they are, both CodePath and LaunchCode attack the same challenge—the tech industry’s severe talent woes. This gnarly set of challenges can be boiled down to:
- Companies can’t find enough tech talent for the jobs they need to fill.
- The pipeline of women and people of color into the industry is tiny, which limits opportunity and creates a serious diversity and equity problem that damages companies’ competitiveness and reputations.
This tech talent gap is a “self-inflicted wound,” according to Julie Elberfeld, senior adviser for Opportunity@Work and a former SVP at Capital One. She argues that companies have for years overlooked skilled professionals, with and without degrees, who didn’t graduate from the nation’s top computer science programs.
“This refrain of a constrained talent pool has been a crisis in the making for years,” she recently wrote in Fortune, “as the industry somewhat proudly narrowed in on an exclusive profile of who belongs in tech.”
The business view
Now, at least some corners of the industry are rethinking that strategy. Change is being driven by distinct but interrelated challenges up and down the market and across industries.
- Big tech and their start-up brethren don’t have a talent shortage. Their challenge is about who gets into the club. That shows up in two ways: foremost is a major lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in technical roles and management. Huge numbers of front-line roles, such as fulfillment center workers and drivers at Amazon, also are at risk of obsolescence or automation—and those workers have no pathway into different roles at the company.
- Major Fortune 500 firms in other industries—retail, finance, health care—are more likely to struggle to compete for top tech talent. Many of these companies have huge hiring needs for developers, systems administrators, and data analysts, along with middle-skill workers like computer support specialists. Their tech roles are not especially diverse, and their workers, too, face major automation risks. The talent challenges for these companies, such as JPMorgan Chase in finance, Walmart in retail, and Blue Cross Blue Shield in health care, are close to existential. And the future in their industries is in tech.
- Regional firms and small businesses simply can’t get the talent they need to grow—there are real shortages here, in everything from software engineering to Genius Bar–type support roles. About 90 percent of IT skills and jobs exist in non-IT industries, according to analysis by Burning Glass and Oracle Academy. Shortages in this area hold back regional economic growth and limit the prosperity of communities and families well beyond the nation’s traditional tech hubs.
These challenges have been building for years, and they’ve only become more pronounced amid the pandemic and racial reckoning of the past two years. Labor market constraints and public opinion may finally be forcing a real shift.
The status quo in education
As the appetite for change builds, industry leaders, policy makers, and educators are now looking more critically at what’s happening in the education pipeline. Enrollments in the computer sciences have been growing for years—a trend that continued this past fall, even as overall college enrollments in the U.S. fell substantially. But women, Black, and Latino students are still substantially underrepresented.
- Of the 97,000 computer and information sciences degrees awarded in 2019–20, Black graduates accounted for just 8 percent and Latinos only 11 percent.
- Women earned just 21 percent of those degrees.
Many students start in the computer sciences but never make it to graduation. And even if they do, graduates often don’t end up in tech roles. Nonprofits like CodePath, Break Through Tech, and Mentors in Tech are looking to change that by embedding in the college journey. Other education approaches—apprenticeships, on-ramps and bootcamps, and employer-based training—simply go around traditional higher education.
An opening for change
Google’s announcement last week follows on the heels of five years of growing investment in new pathways. Like Google and its parent company, Alphabet, all of the other Big 5—Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Meta—have made headlines for dropping bachelor’s degree requirements for technical roles, or they never had them.
These companies also have been designing their own training programs—like Google Career Certificates or AWS Training and Certification—and increasingly are working with community colleges and nonprofit partners like Merit America and Year Up, to both recruit students and provide the wraparound supports they need to complete.
“What we’ve learned over the past five years is what can be accomplished when private-sector companies like ours come together with public-sector institutions and nonprofit partners,” says Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet.
IBM has been especially aggressive in advocating for and developing new pathways into good tech jobs.
Ginni Rometty, the company’s longtime CEO and executive chair until last year, was a high-profile advocate of spending real money to open up hiring to underserved learners. Rometty now co-chairs OneTen, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies that have committed to hiring one million Black workers without degrees for family-sustaining jobs in the next 10 years. Many will be in tech-related roles.
The push from big tech, industry observers say, isn’t just about diversifying their own talent pipelines—but growing the overall pool for the nation. Many of their contractors and customers depend on it.
“Major companies have finally started to understand their role in how they drive the tech space and need to support that pipeline in a meaningful way,” says Krysti Specht, associate director of the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning at JFF.
Despite these recent moves, change has been slow thus far. About 79 percent of job postings for computer programmers still required a bachelor’s or advanced degree in 2020, according to a recent analysis by the Burning Glass Institute. However, that was down from 83 percent in 2017.
The findings were similarly mixed in a special analysis the institute did of major tech companies. Accenture and IBM stood out as making good on their promise to drop degree requirements—with all or almost all of their technical roles having lower degree requirements than the national average.
- For software QA engineers, for example, only 26 percent of Accenture’s and 29 percent of IBM’s posts specified a degree requirement in 2021.
- The national average was 54 percent, and other top tech firms’ were much higher. Oracle’s was 100 percent.
Of course, dropping a degree requirement on paper doesn’t mean that people without degrees will actually get hired. Verizon’s experience is illustrative. Opening up hiring remains a work in progress, despite the company having one of the more progressive positions on hiring. Decisions are ultimately made manager by manager.
The company has worked with Generation and Multiverse for the past year to develop a bootcamp and apprenticeship program that leads to specific jobs at the company. It’s one of the only clear pathways for people without degrees. The apprenticeship program is currently serving just 21 learners—but that still makes it one of the largest in the country at a single employer.
Emerging and evolving pathways
As the appetite for change builds, more creative approaches are happening in education. The rest of this series features in-depth looks at four specific pathways: apprenticeships, degrees, on-ramps and bootcamps, and employer-based training. And key themes emerge across all of them.
Chief among them is the rising focus on work-based learning earlier in a student’s college career, or at a minimum, project-based education designed to build career-relevant skills. CodePath, for example, has designed a supplementary curriculum that embeds in computer science degree programs. Students take semester-long courses in subjects like cybersecurity and professional iOS development. The focus is on app development and other real-world projects.
Course development starts with conversations with engineering teams or the HR staff that serves engineering teams at partner companies. CodePath then builds courses based on the companies’ standards for technical excellence.
“We’re designing for the lead candidate, not the just barely-getting-in-the-door candidate,” says Ellison.
The organization also places a premium on career mentoring and early work experience through internships. It shifts the recruiting calculus for major employers by bringing talent from smaller or less well-known computer science programs—at places like the University of Texas at El Paso, Florida International University, and Northern Michigan University—all into one place. (It also counts some big-name programs, like the one at the University of Texas at Austin, among its partners.)
LaunchCode, on the other hand, works closely with local community colleges—running its 14-week immersive CodeCamp to give students the work-ready skills they need to land a job or start an apprenticeship.
The program, like other apprenticeships, offers perhaps the purest form of an earn-and-learn model, combining paid work and education. Those models are increasingly popular across postsecondary education, but especially in tech training, as a way to better serve adults who can’t take years away from the workforce to get an education.
The idea is that learners get an education without up-front costs or debt, and they earn a fair wage along the way. In that way, apprenticeships and other earn-and-learn programs carry less risk, for both job seekers and employers.
With apprenticeships, the ultimate goal is fast economic advancement, and research by Jason Jabbari at Washington University shows that for those who complete, the LaunchCode program delivers it.
“Apprenticeships make a huge difference in the lives of folks,” Jabbari says. “In my opinion, though, those are the hardest things to scale.”
Getting apprenticeships aligned for both growth and strong outcomes requires a dual customer focus—serving employers as much as learners. LaunchCode’s corporate development team spends its time not only recruiting employer partners, but getting to know the hiring managers and their needs.
Last year, LaunchCode brought more than 700 jobs into their pipeline. Learners can apply for multiple jobs, but they are intentionally matched based on the team’s understanding of employer needs. The training provider typically asks six to seven learners to submit applications for each role, and up to three usually get an interview.
Ultimately, about 350 LaunchCode learners were hired last year through that process.
In general, more employers are looking to have a say even before people start their careers. From Amazon to Salesforce, companies are staking out a clearer position not only on what their own employees need to know and be able to do, but on standards across the industry. Industry certifications, like those from CompTIA and SAS, and employer-designed certificates are exploding.
At the far end of this continuum, Shopify has built its own bachelor’s degree program, run in partnership with Dominican University of California and Carleton and York Universities in Canada.
Questions remain about how much employer-designed credentials help people land jobs, but they’re unquestionably rising in popularity. More than 70,000 Americans have completed a Google certificate in the past five years, for example, and another eight million have participated in some form of training from the company.
Bringing it all together
There’s a nascent movement to make these emerging pathways into tech jobs more coordinated and stackable. The Labor Department, for example, is particularly bullish on registered apprenticeships in tech (and other industries) that are integrated into degree programs.
Institutions like the University of Washington are thinking more critically about lifelong learning in tech—what its Continuum College calls the 60-year curriculum. With one of the leading computer science degree programs in the country, the institution is also betting big on certificates and other microcredentials that can stack into or onto a degree.
In some ways the focus on multiple, stackable credentials is merely a concession to reality. Researchers at New America tell this story of one student in a recent report on tech apprenticeships in the Bay Area:
Abel Regalado founded a high school coding club, participated in a summer exploration academy run by Hack the Hood, did a stint at community college, and attended a few coding camps—but he still wasn’t prepared to start a tech apprenticeship.
He needed training from an intensive bootcamp—he chose Hack Reactor—but first he had to take a few courses at the nonprofit Mission Bit. “It can’t be like zero to 100 right away,” he told the researchers. “You should know 40 percent of it, the basics, the fundamentals, before you start.”
All told, he’d participated in seven or eight different types of training before he even started an apprenticeship. Regalado got there eventually.
But his story is a prime example of how confusing the options are for learners. As new models grow, researchers and education providers are thinking hard about how they all fit together.
They want more success stories like Regalado, who’s now a full-time software engineer. But ones that require a little less time and perseverance.
More on Tech Pathways
Authors: Elyse Ashburn and Paul Fain
This article is part of a Work Shift Explainer series on new pathways into tech. Work Shift’s independent reporting for this project was supported by the Cognizant Foundation.