Last year, Seattle Central College began offering free, federally funded coding classes with a lofty goal — to teach tech skills to the unemployed, giving them a foot in the door at booming firms across the region.
The program, run in partnership with a St. Louis nonprofit, aimed to reach 700 people over four years, placing students in paid apprenticeships in Seattle tech companies — companies that often say they have more openings than people to fill them.
But after 13 months, only four of Seattle Central's 42 students had been placed in tech apprenticeships. LaunchCode, the nonprofit behind the classes, pulled the plug. The program in Seattle, which had spent $1 million of its $3.8 million grant money, was scrapped.
Meanwhile, another tech-training program, Apprenti, which began around the same time and was also awarded a multimillion dollar federal grant, has been so successful that it has expanded to other states.
Why did one fail, and the other succeed?
LaunchCode says it came to realize that prospective tech employees in Seattle needed a much higher level of training than the nonprofit could provide.
"With respect to way we trained people, it simply isn’t good enough for junior-level developer jobs in Seattle," said Jeffrey Mazur, LaunchCode's executive director. "That’s strictly a function of the job market in Seattle."
The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute, which runs the training program called Apprenti, has done much better. It has placed 220 people in registered apprenticeships in 18 months.
The WTIA is a trade association of 800 large and small Washington tech firms, including the region's heavy hitters, such as Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile and Expedia. It was able to draw on its network to craft the apprenticeships, and it knew what local employers wanted, said Jennifer Carlson, WTIA Workforce Institute's executive director.
Of LaunchCode, she said: “They were misaligned with the marketplace here.”
LaunchCode claims to have helped launch nearly a thousand careers since it started in 2013, and last year, more than 120 companies hired its trainees. Its free courses help students get good jobs, the nonprofit says — most trainees more than doubled their previous salaries.
Seattle Central and LaunchCode received the federal grant from an Obama-era program called TechHire Partnerships in 2016. It started its Seattle program in April 2017. It ended the program in May 2018.
Students were to learn coding and tech skills at Seattle Central, and then receive help getting jobs from LaunchCode. The jobs were recognized as federal apprenticeships, but LaunchCode did not earn the more rigorous certification as a registered apprenticeship through the Washington State Labor and Industries.
LaunchCode screened students using an online test. The program received 417 applications and enrolled 80 students. Those students took a free, 20-week course designed by LaunchCode to prepare students to become web developers.
The nonprofit also ran two sessions of a free job-readiness course called Liftoff, which helps job candidates with technical skills get a job. Liftoff received 348 applications and enrolled 63 students.
Of the $1 million in federal money, $375,000 was spent on training and $477,000 on recruitment. Seattle Central received $150,000 for grant implementation, data management and personnel costs.
LaunchCode's model was developed in St. Louis, where entry-level tech skills are in high demand, Mazur said.
In that city, LaunchCode is able to fill an apprenticeship with a student after conducting 5.8 employer outreach activities such as calls, meetings and emails, he said. In Seattle, it took 170 employer outreach activities to fill a job — a sign of how much more difficult it was to find entry-level jobs in Seattle, according to Mazur.
Unlike LaunchCode, the WTIA's program Apprenti did go through the state’s registration process for apprenticeships, but Mazur said he did not believe LaunchCode's lack of registration made any difference. "No question, LaunchCode was an outside entity coming into a new place, where we didn’t have an existing level of partnership and relationships," he said.
But the state did encourage LaunchCode to seek accreditation, said Matthew Erlich, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
Erlich wouldn’t speculate on whether registration — which would have meant following a rigorous set of standards and forging relationships with area businesses — could have made a difference. “But one can look at Apprenti,” as a successful model, he added, “and maybe something positive would have come out of it.”
LaunchCode received federal money to run a similar program in Portland, which was canceled at the same time as Seattle's. LaunchCode says more than 265 learners received free, job-focused coding skills and more than 60 people started careers in technology after getting training through LaunchCode in both Portland and Seattle. The lion's share of those learners were in Portland, Mazur said.
In total, the federal grant amounted to $8 million for the LaunchCode-run programs in Seattle and Portland. Most of the $1 million spent in Seattle from the TechHire grant went to LaunchCode, but some was paid to Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle training academy, for training; and to Seattle Education Access, a nonprofit that helps marginalized youth and young adults, for recruitment. The money not spent here will now be used in other cities.
Apprenti has received $4 million in federal money, through the U.S. Department of Labor's American Apprenticeship Initiative. Its first class began training in November 2016, and while most of the students are in Washington, the program has expanded to other states, including Oregon, northern Virginia, and the cities of Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago. "It's an employer-driven program, so we go to where employers need to be trained," Carlson said.
Apprenti also uses an online screening tool, which assesses a student’s knowledge of algebraic-level math and some geometry. The test takes most people several hours to complete; it does not test whether somebody already knows coding skills.
Only about 30 percent of the 6,000 people who have taken the online screening assessment passed with a score high enough to be part of the pool, Carlson said. "It isn't a cakewalk," she said of the screening assessment, "and some of it is about the perseverance factor."
Those who pass the screening test are interviewed by phone to evaluate whether they have strong problem-solving skills, intellectual curiosity and emotional intelligence, she said.
The program works hand in hand with the local tech community that forms the WTIA, and those who are accepted are guaranteed an apprenticeship. WTIA doesn't do the training — it places students in established coding academies, like CodeFellows, or private computer training schools, such as TLG Learning in Bellevue. Carlson said 94 percent of the applicants are women, veterans or persons of color.
And while about 55 percent of trainees have some kind of associate or bachelor's degree, very few have degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math. The remaining 45 percent have no degree.
Carlson said the median age of Apprenti's apprentices is 31. Many of them say they believe they are stuck in a job with no prospects for advancement but don't have the time or money to go to college for a bachelor's degree.
About 83 percent are offered a job after the apprenticeship ends, with a median salary of $88,000. And there's no difference in success between students who had a college degree and those that did not.
"It's validating what our original thesis was — that not all highly competent people go to college, and we can create another pathway for them, through an apprenticeship," Carlson said.
She said the tech skills needed to get a good job in the Midwest are not the same as the skills needed in a tech hub like Seattle.
"We have a very different need set," Carlson said. "Their (LaunchCode's) product just wasn't at a high enough level of delivery to meet the needs of the market."