ST. LOUIS – Rosemary Shanley was in her senior year of college, majoring in environmental biology and public health, when she decided she really wanted to work in computer programming.
Vince Ganev was a programmer in his native Bulgaria, but he took a construction job here because it didn't require him to know much English. Ten years later, he wanted to return to his chosen field.
In today's credential-focused job market, neither had a resume that would pass muster. Shanley didn't have the right degree; Ganev lacked recent experience.
Yet both Shanley, 22, and Ganev, 40, are working as programmers today. Each got an apprenticeship through LaunchCode, an innovative program that's bridging the technology industry's skill gap.
LaunchCode founder Jim McKelvey knew from experience that plenty of coders came from nontraditional backgrounds or were self-taught. Employers complain about a talent shortage but reject applicants who lack traditional education and experience.
"The moment anybody would hear about my background, they would just turn away," Ganev says of his experience with recruiters.
LaunchCode's solution, launched in the fall of 2013, was an organization that combines screening, training and an apprenticeship program. A year later, LaunchCode has placed 117 people in apprenticeships, and claims a 90 percent success rate at turning those positions into full-time jobs.
Apprenticeships pay $15 an hour and typically last three months. LaunchCode graduates earn a median salary of $50,000.
Half of the apprentices were unemployed before entering the program, and those with jobs earned a median of $23,000. "The theme of LaunchCode is upward mobility," executive director Brendan Lind says. "We're aiming to get people careers, not just jobs."
A few apprentices, including Ganev, come to LaunchCode with computer science degrees, but 40 percent lack a four-year degree. Forty-two percent have degrees in nontechnical fields such as sociology or English.
All of them pass a basic programming test and convince LaunchCode's interviewers that they have the motivation to succeed. Those who need to work on their skills are referred to resources such as EdX, a online-education joint venture between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In January, when LaunchCode began hands-on tutoring to help with the online coursework, Ganev was there. So were about 800 other people, but most dropped out quickly.
Ganev completed the EdX class and created a website to demonstrate his skills. Two months ago, he began his apprenticeship at Centene.
"I'm feeling more and more confident in what I'm doing here," he said last week. "Everybody is helpful. LaunchCode made this possible for me when I didn't know which way to go."
Shanley heard about LaunchCode in March when McKelvey spoke at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a student. She had taken online programming classes on her own for a few months, but she wasn't sure whether anyone would hire her as a coder. After McKelvey explained LaunchCode, she says, "I realized there would be a path to get in."
After graduating in May, Shanley signed up for the EdX course and began attending CoderGirl, a LaunchCode-sponsored mentoring group for women who want to become programmers. She started an apprenticeship last month at Fusion Marketing in St. Louis.
In its second year, LaunchCode intends to expand to other cities, starting with Miami. Its 90 percent success rate in St. Louis should help attract backers there, but what stands out is the program's effect on people's lives.
"l know I wouldn't be where I am right now if it weren't for LaunchCode," Shanley says, a testimonial that's stronger than any statistic.
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