Are bootcamps the answer to the “skills gap standoff?”

Four students and one professor working around one laptop computer bridging the skills gap

U.S. employers are developing a global reputation for wanting the perfectly qualified candidate delivered on a silver platter — or they won’t hire. As Peter Capelli of Penn’s Wharton School astutely notes, “Employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. To get a job, you have to have that job already.”

He calls it the “Home Depot view of the hiring process,” where filling a job vacancy is “akin to replacing a part in a washing machine.” The store either has the part, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, the employer waits. The result is that while there are over eight million unemployed workers, we have over five million unfilled jobs, and perhaps as many articles featuring employers whining about unprepared workers.

In his wonderful monograph “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,” Capelli says we have a “skills standoff,” with employers dissatisfied with the level of new hire preparation, but unwilling to provide training or otherwise engage in skill-building activities with candidates. One major reason? Employers don’t want to risk investing in employees who may leave the company soon after.

And so the supposed skills gap is a byproduct of a trust gap. How can we get employers to trust new hires and engage in training and skill building? Likewise, how can we get candidates to invest in their own skill building — perhaps even skill building specific to an employer — so that employers find the “right part in a washing machine”?

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Bridging the skills gap is not work that employers are prepared to do. And this creates risk for millions of students who have gone tens (and in some cases hundreds) of thousands of dollars into debt to earn their degrees. While colleges and universities have argued from time immemorial that they prepare students for the 5th job, not the first job, research out of the Great Recession is clear on the long-term impact on skills and income of unemployment and/or underemployment immediately out of college. It seems as though we’re close to consensus that the “5th job” argument is bogus; The 5th job may be a lousy job if the 1st job isn’t a good one.

As a result, all participants in the higher education ecosystem should share the objective of establishing or enabling lower-risk (or preferably no-risk) pathways for college students to bridge the skills gap to achieve high-value jobs.

When I was a senior, I was a sucker for the low-risk pathway provided by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. They visited my campus. They spun stories of how a two-year gig as a business analyst was like being paid to go to business school, and of the unlimited career options that would follow. Similar stories ensnare tens of thousands of our most talented grads in consulting and investment banking – which probably aren’t the most economically productive professions compared with technology, healthcare, biotech, and other fast-growing sectors. And don’t get me started on law school!

What can colleges and universities do to create lower-risk or no-risk pathways to high-value careers so their graduates don’t default to law school (and then subsequently default on their student loans)? Look no further than coding bootcamps. Bloc, an online bootcamp with a 48-week software engineering track, is offering to refund the $24k tuition if students don’t land a $60k+ job within four months of graduation. Flatiron School in New York is making a similar offer for both its onground and online bootcamps. Code Fellows does the same. Other bootcamps such as Galvanize have such remarkable placement percentages (97%) that most students perceive a high-paying job to be in the bag. Meanwhile, some coding bootcamps like MakeSchool, Viking Code School and App Academy are free; these schools collect a portion of graduates’ salaries for a number of years. Models like this are expanding rapidly, even showing up in China where online coding bootcamp Uplooking (run by a Red Hat Certified Engineer who goes by the name Shrek – his wife, of course, is Fiona) is guaranteeing jobs to graduates.

While I don’t see colleges and universities guaranteeing jobs anytime soon, they’re already partnering with coding bootcamps that do. Southern New Hampshire University has partnered with Flatiron and many others are submitting applications to the Department of Education for the EQUIP program, which requires such partnerships.

Where might this lead? If you’re guaranteeing students a job, you might as well hire them yourself. This is what eIntern does. eIntern is a former IT staffing company that now partners with colleges and universities to provide last-mile coding training for hundreds of students and recent graduates each year. eIntern recruits students with an aptitude for coding, but none of the employment-ready technical skills, and provides extensive basic-to-advanced (i.e., employer-specific) coding training free of charge. Once students are trained, they’re hired by eIntern and then staffed out to a wide range of employers across the U.S. After a year or two, most students end up getting hired by clients. Forget low risk; eIntern is the first no-risk pathway to high-value careers in IT.

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Low-risk pathways to employment aren’t new in higher education. Many community colleges have developed partnerships with a local employer. In December, Southern Connecticut State University and Gateway Community College announced a bachelor’s degree in business with a specialization in public utility management to establish a pathway to employment at the New Haven Regional Water Authority. But none of these programs provide job guarantees like the coding bootcamps, let alone promise to hire students themselves.

Moreover, this is a “many-to-many” problem: talented students from many institutions need to be trained for and matched to many employers. This is a role that coding bootcamps like Galvanize and next-generation staffing companies like eIntern will play. Like McKinsey, they’ll come to campus and provide a clear pathway to a career. Unlike McKinsey, they’ll also provide valuable no-risk training to specifically prepare students for the high-risk problems employers are trying to solve. Some, like eIntern, feature employer-pay business models that permit them to provide free training worth tens of thousands of dollars.

And while many of these high-risk problems involve IT, others are in biotech, healthcare, and energy. Over the next several years, expect a small army of intermediaries to begin providing structured, low-risk pathways to jobs in fields that are much more economically productive than banking or consulting. And as they’ll do so in partnership with colleges and universities, these pathways will have the imprimatur of their institutions and will be compelling for even the most risk-averse student. Law schools, beware!

 

About the Author
Ryan Craig

Ryan Craig

Ryan Craig is a founding managing director of University Ventures. Prior to University Ventures, Ryan founded and built Wellspring, the largest and leading organization of treatment programs for overweight and obese children, adolescents and young adults, including boarding schools, summer camps and after-school programs. He headed the Education & Training sector at Warburg Pincus from 2001 – 2004 where he was the founding director of Bridgepoint Education (NYSE: BPI), one of the largest online universities in the US. Ryan has advised the U.S. Department of Education and served as vice president strategic development for Fathom, the Columbia University online education company, from 1999-2001. He is the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, published March 2015.