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St. Louis-Area Coding Boot Camps Offer Veterans A Way Into Booming Tech Field

Daniel Agbaji (front) and other Claim Academy students study Java at the start of an all-day boot camp class session. May 9, 2019.
Kae Petrin
St. Louis Public Radio
Daniel Agbaji (front) and other Claim Academy students study Java at the start of an all-day boot camp class session.

Technology companies and startups in St. Louis say they struggle to fill software development jobs. A St. Louis coding boot camp is making it easier for veterans to break into the tech industry and to help close that employment gap.

St. Louis entrepreneur Ola Ayeni runs Claim Academy, a for-profit company that offers 12- and nine-week all-day training programs for popular programming languages such as Java and C#. In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs approved vets to use their GI Bill stipends to pay for the $12,500-to-$15,000 classes.

“We put St. Louis in the position where we can attract veterans from all over America,” Ayeni said. “We can invite them to St. Louis, train them and then retain them in this region.

Recent classes in the program have included veterans from Arizona, Texas and Kansas.

One of those students is Kevin Thornton, a native of Austin, Texas, who discharged from the Air Force in 1998. He began a Claim Academy course in March, after working as a special education teacher and in IT at a hospital.

“I realized that was definitely a quick way to plateau in terms of a career, and I knew that the best way to future-proof myself was get into what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said.

Studies project that both locally and nationwide, the tech industry will continue to expand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of software developer jobs in the U.S. will grow by 26% from 2016 to 2026. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7%.

Thornton considered attending boot camp programs in Texas but heard that “after they’re done, they kind of forget about you.” Instead, he wanted to find a school that networked and invested in placing its students.

Partway through his Claim Academy boot camp in Java, he received a software offer from Boeing. Thornton graduates next Wednesday.

Ayeni said that he thinks the needs of the job market provide a good opportunity for many veterans like Thornton to find meaningful work as they transition out of military service, and years after.

“It makes a lot of sense to find rewarding careers for our men and women who have served this great nation,” he said.

According to Claim Academy, 93% of its 300-plus graduates have found jobs. That’s higher than the industry average of 80%, as reported by students in industry surveys. Some Claim Academy graduates have been hired at local employers such as Mastercard, Charter Communications and Express Scripts.

The academy recently joined the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, which audits coding camps’ job reports, student demographics and outcome data. Representatives said the first formal report will be available in 2020. It’s also approved by the Missouri Department of Higher Education, Ayeni said.


‘A huge untapped talent pool’

Another code camp in the area, LaunchCode, also offers services to veterans. The nonprofit offers several boot camps for free. They meet once or twice a week and last five to six months.

LaunchCode received a grant from the Berges Family Foundation to teach a 20-week class near Scott Air Force Base for veterans, active service members and military families. That class graduated around 50 people at the beginning of May, according to LaunchCode.

Programming jobs often suit the skills and lifestyles of military families, said LaunchCode director of public relations Leah Freeman. Remote positions let people maintain the same job as they move around the U.S.

And, Freeman said, veterans already have the skills that many local tech employers are looking for — they often just need advocates to help them find opportunities in the industry.

“We know that this group of people is a huge untapped talent pool here in St. Louis, and really in America in general,” she said. “However, they often have trouble getting their foot into the door into a new industry like the tech industry just because they lack traditional credentials like a four-year computer science degree.”

Coding boot camps often provide networking and application-preparation services as well, to help their students overcome those barriers.

Several graduates of the LaunchCode course for military families have already secured jobs. The organization doesn’t currently have funding to offer another one, but Freeman said they’re exploring options to acquire additional grants. LaunchCode also offers courses to the general public, which veterans have taken.

A Claim Academy student scrolls through work in a code editor.  May 9, 2019.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
A Claim Academy student scrolls through work in a code editor.

Not just a local phenomenon

Claim Academy is part of a nationwide trend. For-profit coding camps have grown rapidly in popularity since 2013, according to industry reports. But the Department of Veterans Affairs rarely approved their tuitions for GI Bill use because the programs don’t usually lead to college degrees.

That changed in 2017, when Congress approved a five-year pilot program that lets veterans use their benefits to enroll in technology education programs.

Claim Academy is one of dozens of coding camps nationwide now eligible for GI Bill coverage. And according to a 2018 report from St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions division, there’s a real need for workers with tech skills in the St. Louis area.

The report found that St. Louis-area job postings sought software developers or computer experts more than any other job except registered nurses. In a 12-month period studied by the report, employers posted more than 16,000 jobs that required those technology skills.

The boot camps can attract employers because they equip students with skills much more quickly than two- or four-year degree programs, said Hart Nelson, associate vice chancellor for the community college’s Workforce Solutions program.

St. Louis Community College is developing its own accelerated training program for software developers, as an alternative to degrees.

Nelson said that a traditional degree teaches valuable skills, but there’s such a need for computer programmers right now that employers often look to boot camp students to fill the gaps. Especially because he hears from employers that new employees often require the same training processes once they’re hired, regardless of their education.

“Employers are saying, ‘We’re finding we have to do that with anyone that comes in the door, just so they can understand our culture and how we operate. And we would rather have folks in many cases coming in more quickly,’” Nelson said.

Nelson, a veteran himself, said that the community college is continually working to make its accelerated programs more available to veterans, “whether it’s coding, or truck driving, or solar installer — veterans have a lot of interests.”

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.