In September 2013, Jim McKelvey, the St. Louis-based co-founder of the mobile-payments company Square, recognized the need for technology talent and created LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization designed to create pathways to apprenticeships and jobs. Within its first two years, more than 1,000 people took their first steps toward lucrative technology careers through LaunchCode’s training and educational programs.
In October 2015, the organization opened the LaunchCode Mentor Center in north St. Louis as a collaborative tech-training space. “The U.S. faces a massive tech-talent gap,” says executive director Brendan Lind. “The U.S. Department of Labor predicts 1 million technology jobs will go unfilled by 2020. When developing Square, Jim McKelvey experienced this firsthand. He couldn’t find enough local tech talent to fill jobs at his new company. At the same time, McKelvey saw many people in his hometown struggling in low-wage jobs, unable to find well-paying work with the opportunity for growth.”
In a news release announcing the opening, Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon said the Mentor Center grows LaunchCode’s initial mission of “building a bridge for members of the community to access next-generation tech training and for growing businesses to access a pipeline of trained workers.” The organization anticipates serving roughly 1,000 individuals at the Mentor Center this year alone. In addition to space for educational programs and mentoring, the 16,000-square-foot center houses its administrative offices and staff of almost 30 people.
Lind echoes Nixon’s sentiments on the crucial need for the space: “The Mentor Center provides resources that focus on preparing candidates for all types of jobs in the tech workforce – students can get a foundational understanding of code through CS50x St. Louis, our free, world-class partnership with Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis, or attend the weekly CoderGirl meetup to explore topics in Web design and (the programming language) Java.”
Most high-paying technology jobs require a college degree and three to five years of work experience in the field, which closes the doors to many motivated, bright individuals. LaunchCode is partnering with educators and employers, both local and national, to help provide the skills and contacts needed to move more people into the workforce.
Kara Wolter was one of those candidates. After working as a grocery clerk, Wolter sought training at LaunchCode and became an apprentice at Monsanto. “Working at Monsanto, I’m constantly challenged to grow and learn and do new things,” she says in the annual report. “LaunchCode is a great bridge for people who are passionate about programming computers but don’t necessarily have the experience companies are looking for.”
Lind points to Wolter’s journey as a prime example of the type of situation LaunchCode was created to develop. “LaunchCode was founded to help the untapped talent here in St. Louis find opportunity while also allowing our businesses, cities and individuals to thrive,” he says. “Our mission is to ensure that if one can do the job, he or she can get the job.“
LaunchCode candidates come from all walks of life: veterans, mothers re-entering the workforce, college students unable to find jobs with their four-year degrees, persons with disabilities and many others. It works to fill many different employer needs, including noncoding jobs such as business analysts and database administrators. LaunchCode also supports candidates in developing their interview skills, professional demeanor and ability to be successful in the workplace, Lind adds. LaunchCode’s 2015 annual report estimates more than 300 jobs, plus additional apprenticeships, have been created since the organization opened its doors.
Monsanto is just one of many large companies providing financial or in-kind support to the organization. LaunchCode has more than 200 hiring partners in the St. Louis region, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to local startups that span a wide array of industries. In addition, the state provides support through Youth Opportunities Program, the Missouri Works Program for creating 20 new full-time jobs at the center and the Community Development Block Grant program, according to the governor’s office.
“The support of the St. Louis business community has been integral to our success,” Lind says, adding that a new hub office in Miami opened last year, with expansions planned this year for Kansas City and Providence, Rhode Island. “Local companies hire LaunchCoders, provide mentorship to candidates and support our educational opportunities through generous donations and corporate giving,” Lind says.
“St. Louis took a chance on the experiment that was LaunchCode. Today, we’ve been recognized by the White House as a national example of how to solve the tech-talent gap, and we’re bringing our model to cities across the country.
“There is so much untapped talent in this region,” Lind continues. “LaunchCode provides an opportunity for people to learn the right skills, get better jobs, and create better lives for themselves and their families. At the same time, businesses are solving their talent shortage through a new pipeline of skilled job seekers.”
Individuals who want to explore career development through LaunchCode can learn more about specific programs and apply at the company’s website, launchcode.org.