Tech training levels the playing field for career-changers

As we move towards a more automated workforce, technology is slowly becoming embedded in our children’s lives and education. Digital tools and coding curricula are the norm in many American classrooms, transforming our workforce into creators and builders who will shape the technical solutions of the future.

Tech education in the K-12 space is important and necessary, but there’s a large group being left behind: the career-changers. As our workforce requires an ever-increasing number of technical skills, this population is hungry to adapt and learn. With the number of open tech jobs mounting, this is a huge pool of potential talent St. Louis can’t afford to ignore.

The number of middle- to late-career-changers hoping to enter the tech industry is increasing, yet the barriers to entry can sometimes seem impossible to hurdle. Learning a new set of skills – skills which didn’t exist when many career-changers first entered the workplace – is difficult and costly. Even after obtaining tech skills, hiring biases create even more barriers. 

LaunchCode, a nonprofit connecting talented candidates with companies in need of tech talent here in St. Louis, combats antiquated hiring practices daily. 

For one, many companies still prioritize applicants with a four-year degree and, in the evolving tech industry, this rigid hiring practice shuts out lots of talented people. Obviously, cost, not talent, is the main barrier to gaining traditional credentials. The time demanded to earn even an associate’s degree is more than someone working full-time or with dependents can afford to give.

Secondly, there are institutional barriers. The programming skills companies are looking for change so rapidly, someone earning a computer science degree may very well be equipped with outdated knowledge by graduation. Companies searching for “the perfect resume” often overlook great candidates who have insight from both work and life experience that, although unconventional for the tech industry, gives them a unique perspective that adds value to a tech team. 

Kimberly Vaughn, for instance, spent her career in social work and in the insurance industry before looking to LaunchCode to start a new career in 2015. She knew gaining tech skills would launch her into a world with more opportunities for advancement and greater financial stability. 

“In order to get on a level playing field, I needed to change my career,” Vaughn said. “For mid-career individuals to be competitive in the workforce, it is almost imperative to have some type of technical knowledge.” 

She now works as a project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. When LaunchCode first connected her to the Federal Reserve, the job experiences listed on her resume may have looked out of place to many tech hirers. But the skills she brought to the table, mixed with the technical ability she gained through LaunchCode, were the perfect tech cocktail.

LaunchCode’s free and part-time learning model also lifts up career-changers. 

“Technology was the only career pathway I felt I had the capability of learning quickly and, because LaunchCode doesn’t charge learners, I was able to close the gap on the monetary losses that I had taken for many years,” Vaughn said. “Making the choice to change careers into technology was the best decision that I have ever made.”

Despite the common conception of what a technologist looks like, the makeup of LaunchCode’s classrooms are far from typical. LC101, LaunchCode’s 20-week flagship computer programming course, is filled with over 100 students from all walks of life and from all corners of the region. Over 45 percent of LaunchCode’s students are over the age of 30, and most come from non-technical career and education backgrounds. About half of its students have a college degree in a major other than computer science, and 45 percent have no four-year degree. Although these demographics don’t reflect those of an average college classroom, LaunchCode has been successful in placing its learners into high-paying and upwardly mobile tech jobs at employers like Boeing, MasterCard and Express Scripts. 

The need for tech talent in our region is only growing, and if we want to continue to attract and retain businesses, fostering local tech talent should be our top priority. It’s no secret that our universities and colleges simply aren’t graduating the amount of technologists needed to match employer demand. But there are a countless number of individuals here in our region who are driven to gain the skills needed in these high-demand roles. Their resumes aren’t the resumes of computer science grads, but that’s the point. They are the resumes of hungry, passionate and experienced learners waiting for the opportunity to prove they belong in tech.

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