Opinion
Planting Seeds

Addressing Tech’s Labor Shortage

Boot camps are starting to give university programs a run for their money.

Addressing Tech’s Labor Shortage

Martin Curley, CEO of the Irish national health service, presents two ways of creating new ventures, which he compares to nuclear processes. The most common approach is fission—“splitting” atoms to release their intrinsic energy. Curley advocates another powerful route akin to nuclear fusion—when two or more atoms collide to form a new “fused” nucleus. This is the powerful process that continues to power the sun.

Pundits and incubators commonly advocate dividing up constituent elements of the business plan—product, team, marketing, resources, etc.—for a thorough review, analysis, and manipulation. This fission-like approach unleashes the energy for a new venture concept. Fusion, on the other hand, blends two or more disparate needs in the marketplace to create an entirely new business concept that can lead to a breakthrough.

Nerdery, a custom software development company, is a local success story. Founded in 2003, it has been an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private company each year since it became eligible. With a strong culture, it has twice been voted best place to work by the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal.

By 2012, however, Nerdery was facing an existential threat. It did not come from a competitor or a lack of demand; to the contrary, very robust demand exposed that it was running out of trained software developers to meet that demand. Hiring and training at a frantic pace could not keep up.

It was not alone. All software development companies, as well as those businesses recruiting similar talent for their own needs, were facing the same problem. Raising salaries was a short-term, ruinous option. Captive training programs were an expensive failure because the trainees left shortly after graduation.

Since everything in the future will be written in code, analysts predict more than a million unfilled tech jobs. The tech personnel shortage is ubiquitous, ongoing, and substantial.

There are people—many with an associate degree or less—trapped in unsatisfying careers. Many recent college graduates are also looking to add coding and data science skills to their resumes.

At the same time, there are people—many with an associate degree or less—trapped in unsatisfying careers. Many recent college graduates are also looking to add coding and data science skills to their resumes. They ruminate about a more lucrative career in technology. In spite of a willingness to change, even invest money, there is no easy path. University programs are deemed too slow, too expensive, and not responsive to the specific challenges faced by these nontraditional aspirants. In 2012, a fused solution emerged in the form of boot camps. Aimed at training these eager candidates for the shortage-prone industry, aspirants would quit their job, pay tuition, learn to code, and emerge “retooled.” Since the problem was ubiquitous, the graduates would be quickly absorbed in the marketplace.

In 2014, the principals at Nerdery started an independent company, Prime Digital Academy, the first of its kind in the state. Mark Hurlburt, chief strategy officer, did detailed research on the business model and left to launch this new company. It was designed to be best of class in the tech boot camp domain.

Prime offers an intensive, 20-week full-stack coding program and 18-week UX design program in Minneapolis. Working directly with Twin Cities tech employers, these programs equip engineers and designers with the skills to make an immediate contribution. Curriculum includes modern technologies, practical methodologies, and critical behavioral skills. They also learn via real-world projects for pro bono clients in the community. The focus is on experience, with all the real-world messiness. Already adept at the business side, the students bring a different, but valuable, frame of reference to tech development.

The tight-knit learning community continues long after graduation, with students participating in mentorship, community education, and ongoing alumni career support. These relationships provide an invaluable network.

Prime is in its fourth year of operation, having graduated about 40 cohort groups, with 700 students who have been hired by nearly 300 companies in Minnesota. The initial hesitation of recruiters about a captive Nerdery program is gone. Nerdery is not even the top recruiter at Prime.

Now, boot camps have cropped up everywhere. The average tuition of a qualifying course is $11,400, with and an average program length of 14.1 weeks—well shorter than a university program. Today, there are around 100 such boot camps in the U.S., with 23,000 annual graduates, roughly a fifth the number in higher education. Boot camps are one example of entrepreneurial fusion of seemingly disparate issues for something new and vital.

“While mapping the solutions to tech shortage, we started by being focused strictly on our business problem,” Hurlburt says.  “When we also design connections and engage community, we become a bridge for discontented individuals. These concepts became inextricably connected. That has been our greatest sense of accomplishment.”

Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at rajiv@mn-iie.org.

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