Bridge Bootcamp: An alternative career path for college dropouts

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The media is rife of late with coverage of two seemingly contradictory patterns. The first is the alarming trend of unemployment and underemployment among twenty-somethings. There are reports that over 40% of college graduates are working in the so-called marginal economy – as Uber drivers, Starbucks baristas, and other low paid hourly jobs that don’t come close to matching their cognitive potential.  The second is the skill gap causing a severe talent shortage – which paradoxically leaves approximately 6 million jobs unfilled in the U.S.  Both of these developments will cause significant social and economic repercussions if not addressed in the short term.

The private sector can usually be counted on to develop innovative approaches to address systemic market asymmetries. In the labor market, the IT sector has been experiencing the greatest talent shortage; specifically, finding qualified coding personnel. And so, with no involvement of government or non-profit entities, outfits including General Assembly, Galvanize, and countless others have collectively raised hundreds of millions in venture capital to close the skill gap in this sector. With a few exceptions, results from this market-driven solution are promising. Yet they have still produced barely fifty thousand graduates in the five years they have been existence. 

Some observers have wondered whether an immersive, short term bootcamp program could be established to address the skill gap in non-coding job families. The answer is yes, with an asterisk. Look at the profile of the typical coding bootcamp enrollee. He (they’re mostly male) is over 30, has worked for 7 years, and earned about $50K in his last job. This is how these “career-changers” are able to afford the $12-$16K tuition fees, which is typically what the 15 week programs charge.

Contrast this population with a much larger and younger segment of the labor force. Over half a million students drop out of college every year – half due to financial constraints. But lack of academic success should not condemn them to a life of temp work and dead-end jobs. This demographic offers the greatest potential for closing the persistent middle-skills gap. These are jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.  There are 30 million such jobs in the U.S. economy, based in the manufacturing, healthcare, finance and logistics sectors. Over half them pay $55K annually.

Many post-secondary institutions proudly proclaim their rising graduation rates, which they have achieved by implementing better support systems to keep marginal students from dropping out. Despite this steady progress, the four year graduation rate across U.S. colleges and universities is still under 60%. For those that don’t get to walk the stage at graduation, there is little in the way of support to help them find an alternative career path. Instead of an educational off-ramp, most are faced with a brick wall, career-wise, compounded by the stigma of being labeled a dropout. Yet by managing to complete a year or two of college, they have proven to have many of the skills needed to qualify for the so-called “new collar jobs” that companies are having difficulty filling. But very few of them would be able to foot the $15K  tuition bill for a coding bootcamp.

A convergence of economic factors has created more barriers to employment for this group.  As companies automate more and more of their administrative functions, HR departments have been reduced to using applicant tracking systems (ATS) to bring greater efficiency to the hiring process. The result is a filtering out of any resume that doesn’t contain the keywords “bachelors degree”, or the exact skills contained in the job description. Add to this the cutbacks that corporations are making in training new hires, and you’re left with a sizable talent pool that is out of alignment with the labor shortage.  To put a hiring spin on the “plenty of fish in the sea” metaphor, it’s as if a commercial fisherman is using such a large mesh in the net he drags behind his ocean trawler that it keeps coming up empty. Despite observing thousands of them swimming in large schools around his boat, he complains that there’s no fish left in the sea.

In fact, when hiring managers rely on a blunt instrument like an ATS, they are missing out on some high potential talent. While those with ”some-college-no-degree” lack a sheepskin, they have nevertheless demonstrated sufficient mastery to achieve admission to an institution of higher education, including a decent SAT score and passing several AP courses. Not to mention the fact that anyone who successfully navigates the myriad 100+ question FAFSA application for federal student aid is likely to have a cognitive ability at least on the level of a typical mortgage broker or bookkeeper. These vocational vagabonds should be at the front of the line for a number of high-demand careers instead of at the back of the unemployment line.  They could get there by spending about two or three months in a middle-skills, workplace-ready bridge program rather than a coding bootcamp. They would emerge without assuming any further debt and with the polish and skills needed for a variety of internships, apprenticeships, and ultimately full-time employment in future-proof, well paying jobs. 

A so-called “Career Access Pathway Program” would consist of a blend of aptitude assessments, career coaching, teamwork and project management activities. An intensive ten week bootcamp style curriculum would expose students to the same amount of content contained in eight or nine semester-long college courses covering the three principal skill clusters needed to compete in the modern workplace. These are: Thinking skills (critical thinking, analytics, and problem solving); Personal skills (communication, teamwork, reliability) and Digital skills (Microsoft Office & other workplace technologies, as well as online learning practices). Students would receive immersive training simulating the environment of a factory floor, warehouse, or lab, all made possible using the advances in VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality). They would be given opportunities to experience the world of a precision manufacturing associate, a machinist or welder, a sales development specialist or a supply chain professional, all within the classroom setting.  There would still be time left to apply these skills to a week long on-site business challenge hosted by employer partners. Graduates would be well positioned to pursue opportunities in a high demand field such as manufacturing, logistics, or health care.

The funding  for this “alt-bootcamp” comes primarily from employers and staffing agencies anxious to tap into this low visibility, high-potential candidate pool. Students or their families would be expected to invest in their future by paying tuition fees of under $2000. Tertiary support would come from community workforce development programs.

The coding bootcamp field has grown tenfold in the last five years to become a $260 million industry. This growth was driven largely by the unrelenting demand for its output – ready-to-work developers. The demand for work-ready middle skilled talent is an order of magnitude larger, meaning this bootcamp sector could become a billion dollar industry in the next decade. 

A bachelors degree is ironically both more and less valuable now than it ever was. But the fact is, it’s not for everyone. Neither is a career writing code. Yet everyone who has achieved a level of education beyond high school is entitled to a better shot at a stable occupation than they typically get.  The Bridge Bootcamp is one such viable alternative.