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St. Louis-based LaunchCode serves as model for Obama initiative

CoderGirl offers free weekly meetings that are meant to bring women with an interest in computer programming together with female mentors who can guide them.
Courtesy of LaunchCode

President Barack Obama on Monday announced an initiative called TechHire that will train and connect workers to tech jobs.

In unveiling the $100 million program at the National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., the president highlighted LaunchCode, a St. Louis nonprofit started in 2013.

"It was pretty awesome," said LaunchCode co-founder and executive director Brendan Lind. "President Obama got up there and laid out a model for moving America forward that, in many ways, is just the LaunchCode model."

LaunchCode was co-founded by Jim McKelvey, a St. Louis native and co-founder of Square. Its aim is to help fill the tech-talent gap. The nonprofit helps train computer programmers then places them in apprenticeships with companies. In St. Louis, the program works with more than 150 companies and plans to place 250 people in apprenticeships this year.

In his comments, Obama highlighted the story of LaShana Lewis, who grew up in East St. Louis and had an interest in computers but didn’t attend college. Lewis took part in a LaunchCode meetup and ended up with an internship at MasterCard. She’s now a system engineer with the company.

"It’s a great story, but understand this: MasterCard wants to hire more folks like LaShana," the president said in his speech.

Obama said his initiative will work to find ways to train workers and connect them with tech jobs. The White House said there are 500,000 open tech positions today that, on average, pay 50 percent higher than many private-sector American jobs.

TechHire will work with 21 cities, including St. Louis and more than 300 employers. The initiative will also provide $100 million in grants through a competition to find and scale up innovative training programs.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., praised the president’s plan and said it will directly benefit St. Louis.

"St. Louis is home to some of our country’s most innovative companies — employers that are cutting new paths for industry and expanding good-paying job opportunities in our state," McCaskill said in a statement. "This new effort highlights this growing economic engine in our region and is good news for business."

For LaunchCode, which now operates in St. Louis and Miami, the initiative could mean more rapid expansion. Lind said they’re hoping to leverage the opportunity and get into other cities. Ultimately, he said, it’s good for St. Louis.

"So we’re taking a program that’s in St. Louis, helping St. Louis and also aims to put St. Louis on the map nationally as something that stands for economic opportunity, upward mobility and social justice," he said.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.