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July 2, 2018; Seattle Times

It is widely known that the technology industry suffers from a lack of diversity. NPQ reported on efforts taken by Google and other tech companies to recruit more women and people of color into technology careers through training and other opportunities back in 2015. The Obama administration also provided federal funds through the TechHire initiative, a campaign to expand local tech sectors by building tech talent pipelines. Many of these programs partnered nonprofits with colleges, universities and other tech training programs to send potential employees through intensive training programs.

But have these efforts worked? The Seattle Times reported this month on two free federally funded nonprofit tech training programs; one shut down after only 13 months, and the other got high placement rates and expanded to other states. By delving into both cases, the Times seeks to explain the difference: a key factor—local knowledge— matters.

First, the failure case: In early 2017, Seattle Central College, the city’s first community college, began offering free, federally funded coding classes. Partnering with LaunchCode, a St. Louis, Missouri–based nonprofit, the program aimed to train 700 people over four years and place students in paid apprenticeships in Seattle tech companies that needed new employees. But barely over a year into the program, only four students were placed in apprenticeships, and the program was shut down after spending $1 million of the $3.8 million in grant money.

These low job placement rates are actually common among tech training programs, especially among those that are tuition-based. TechBeacon found that 17 of 24 for-profit programs claimed that 90 percent or more of their students got full-time programming jobs or freelancing positions within six to 12 months of graduation, but that those numbers can be misleading, as very few for-profit boot camps accurately track and report outcomes. In recent years, there has been a student backlash against these expensive for-profit programs that often charge upwards of $15,000 in tuition costs, with very little return in job placement. Two major players in the tuition-based programs, Dev Bootcamp and IronYard, closed in 2017 amid low placement numbers, and Bloomberg reported in 2016 that many employers don’t feel that coding bootcamps teach the technology skills needed for real-time employment.

Google’s director of education and university relations, Maggie Johnson, told Bloomberg, “Our experience has found that most graduates from these programs are not quite prepared for software engineering roles at Google without additional training or previous programming roles in the industry.” “We generally don’t hire from coding schools,” said Robyn Blum, a spokeswoman for Cisco told the news outlet.

LaunchCode, for its part, acknowledges it fell short. “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.” But statistics show that this problem exists not just in Seattle, but also for many of the for-profit tech training programs.

But not all programs fail. Apprenti, another Seattle-based program, was funded by the Obama-era Department of Labor, and the Seattle Times reports that it has done very well, placing 220 people in registered apprenticeships in 18 months. It’s run by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute, 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. “The program was successful because it was able to draw on its network to craft the apprenticeships, and knew what local employers wanted,” Jennifer Carlson, WTIA Workforce Institute’s executive director, told the Times.

Elearning Inside News reports that nonprofit tech training programs are viable alternatives to the private institutions that often charge well over $10,000 for the price of admission. Detroit At Work, a city-based training initiative that seeks to foster development, partnered together Grand Circus, a computer software training organization and Meridian, a healthcare company to create The Meridian Bootcamp, a free coding training program that will hire students directly from the bootcamp to Meridian.

In Chicago, as part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code initiative, an iOS bootcamp was created as a collaboration between Apple and the City Colleges of Chicago that gives free training in Swift, the language in which iOS apps are now written, along with many other leading digital services and products. The Chicago Tribune reports that as part of the initiative, businesses such as GE Transportation, IBM and the nonprofit Rush University Medical Center are preparing to give internships, mentoring and other opportunities to the students.

Elearning Inside News also mentioned other business models for non-profit coding bootcamps, such as Founders and Coders. This U.K. based program is free for students and generates a profit by charging a recruitment fee for businesses looking for skilled professionals and by also performing contract consulting work.

So, what is the best model for the future of tech training programs? Launchcode taught students basic coding skills, but employers in Seattle were looking for more specialized skills. In St. Louis, where the organization was based, entry-level coding skills are in demand, but they failed to adjust to the local market need.

Apprenti, however, tailored its programs to employer needs in the Seattle area and were able to train employees to directly meet those needs. This indicates that successful programs need to be tailored to geographic need.

There is also something to be said about the approach of nonprofit bootcamps versus for-profit ones. Nonprofit are designed to produce outcomes and data to support program success, while for-profits’ main goals are to get as many students enrolled as possible. This is likely the reason that for-profits focus on enrolling students while nonprofits focus on successful program rates; they are acutely aware that their funding could be in jeopardy if they are not showing progress.

But will these nonprofit programs, while proven more successful, be able to sustain themselves? There are private investors and funders out there willing to support these initiatives. Indeed, while LaunchCode failed in Seattle, they still were able to secure funding from the Alliance Data Corporate Giving Fund to support tech training in south Florida (which hopefully builds on the lessons that LaunchCode learned in Seattle).

Certainly, nonprofits employ many approaches to help women and people of color find jobs in the tech sector, and not all revolve around securing employment with large companies. Some, such as Techtown Detroit, have successfully focused on supporting small business development and business ownership by people of color and women. That said, done well, nonprofit bootcamps that help women and people of color obtain jobs in large technology companies can fill an important niche.—Alexis Buchanan

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial state to reflect that Apprenti was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative, not through TechHire.