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Code School: Can programming boot camps solve Cincinnati's shortage of tech talent?

Fast-growing industry fills job-training niche
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 18, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Malorie Kramer has a four-year degree in fine arts and a 12-week certificate in front-end web development.

Guess which made her a more confident job hunter.

“When we were looking at job listings, I was like, ‘Oh, I qualify for these things,’” said Kramer, 27, one of four students in the inaugural class of The Iron Yard, a code-writing school that launched in Cincinnati five months ago.

The goal of the program is “to take people from beginner to job-ready, junior-level developers,” said Campus Director Jeff Boeh. For $13,900, students get an “immersive” 12-week program that consumes 60 to 80 hours a week and puts them in touch with companies eager to hire them.

Malorie Kramer

“It was definitely worth it,” Kramer said. “It’s not only the knowledge (but) they very much push the networking as well. Being able to meet people within the industry is pretty substantial, I think.”

Code schools rising

The story doesn’t end here, of course. Kramer doesn’t have a job yet. But she does have a chance showcase her abilities Friday at The Iron Yard’s first-ever Cincinnati Demo Day. Organizers hope to draw 130 people from the Cincinnati tech and startup communities.

Kramer and fellow student Jared Knueven have tangible evidence of their programming skill. It's a parking app that uses geolocation tools to deliver information on pricing and availability of public spaces Downtown. They developed the app in their last two weeks of training. Knueven, 25, was working at a Game Swap store in Mason when he took the Iron Yard plunge.

"I was on the bottom rung anyway, so jumping down a square didn't really hurt," he said. "The first two days was more of a refresher, but everything past that was new and expanding my knowledge."

Jared Knueven at work.

It’s a frothy, fledgling industry, the code-school world, stirred by acute shortages of programming talent nationwide and a $150 million White House initiative called TechHire.

Announced in June, the program funded 39 grants nationwide with the goal of training at-risk and disadvantaged young Americans to fill an estimated 600,000 vacant IT jobs.

In Cincinnati, the IT void is about 1,800 jobs, said Geoff Smith, co-chair of the CIO Roundtable, a business-backed group that’s trying to address the region’s most acute labor shortage. Smith said local universities and community colleges have beefed up enrollment in recent years but haven’t met the demand for new talent.

“There is a need for code schools,” he said. “But like everything else in this area, there’s no single answer. You’ve got to come at this from a lot of different angles.”

Smith, a former P&G executive who serves on The Iron Yard’s advisory board, said Cincinnati has several programming schools offering different approaches.

Mason-based MAX Technical Training offers an eight-week boot camp in Java and .Net coding that operates under the name Cincy Code IT.

Thrive Impact Sourcing offers an eight-week training program that prepares low-income residents for jobs in software testing.

“The model of the code academy is proven,” Smith said. “We’re getting close to 100 hires here in town that have gone through this model.”

Boeh said there are at least 175 local jobs unfilled for entry-level web developers, jobs that pay about $50,000 in Cincinnati. So, the Greenville, South Carolina-based code school made Cincinnati its 22nd campus since 2013.

That is rapid growth, even for this industry, according to Course Report, a Brooklyn, New York-based research company that tracks more than 300 coding schools, a tenfold increase since 2013. Course Report estimates that coding boot camps like The Iron Yard now operate in 34 states and will generate revenue of $199 million with 18,000 graduates in 2016. Its student surveys find 89 percent of boot camp graduates are employed in programming within 120 days of graduation and 66 percent are employed full time with an average salary of $67,718. But that includes people with higher levels of training and jobs on the high-paying coasts.

Boeh said Iron Yard is in the process of auditing jobs data on its 1,100 graduates to date. But he added that more than 90 percent of students who participate in its career support program find work within six months.

Boeh grew up in Anderson Township and left the University of Cincinnati to work for the Iron Yard in Spartanburg. He returned to open its West Chester campus in May. Boeh said the school is searching for an Over-the-Rhine location that can tap into the local startup community and be closer to Downtown employers aggressively hiring entry-level programmers.

“There’s been a lot of great communication from companies in town, saying, ‘Hey, we need this. This is something we are ready for,’” he said. “A lot of our students are career changers, so they’re not coming out with just development skills. They have a lot of other professional skills and backgrounds that allow them to take on different roles than just a general software developer.”

How to pick the right school

Students searching for a code school can often attend free crash courses to get a flavor for what a programming class is like. The Course Report lists reviews and ratings for programming boot camps nationwide, including two in Cincinnati and six within a 100-mile radius of Downtown.

One new industry trend is deferred tuition. Course Report said bootcamps charge an average of $11,000 for their training, but delay required payments until students have a job.

Smith said the code schools that deliver the best results seem to be those with classroom instruction, as opposed to online-only course work.

Financial counselor Dan Bisig said coding schools could be a great alternative to piling up student debt for degrees that aren’t marketable. But he urges caution because the industry is young and trade schools aren’t tightly regulated.

“Show me the numbers,” said Bisig, founder of the Florence-based consulting firm, College and Beyond LLC. “I’d want to see what percentage of your students are spending the money, getting out and getting a job. If I can see that 100 percent of the students are getting a job, I might be sold on that.”