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Addressing tech-talent gap, LaunchCode to expand to Miami

Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, also founded the job-placement nonprofit LaunchCode, which is opening in Miami.
Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, also founded the job-placement nonprofit LaunchCode, which is opening in Miami.

Jim McKelvey, the co-founder of the mobile payment company Square, believes you don’t need a computer science degree or be a 20-something male to get a good job in technology.

At the same time, a tech-talent shortage is one of the oft-cited challenges facing Miami and other cities and the job market just doesn’t work efficiently, McKelvey said. So he started a job-placement nonprofit, LaunchCode, to address the talent gap by opening the field of motivated and qualified applicants in an innovative way.

LaunchCode, based in St. Louis, matches aspiring technologists with local companies through paid apprenticeships that lead to long-term careers. On Wednesday, the organization announced it will expand to Miami, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To be sure, the talent gap is also a national challenge. According to projections by the U.S. Department of Labor, 1 million U.S. programming jobs will go unfilled by 2020. “The mission of LaunchCode is to take the entire economy and change it from one of scarcity of technical talent to at least neutrality if not abundance,” said McKelvey, adding that a Silicon Valley study showed that every tech job brings four other jobs to an area.

The Knight Foundation is investing $1.25 million, over three years, to support LaunchCode’s Miami opening early next year. LaunchCode launched in St. Louis in 2013 and this will be its first expansion.

“What we really like about LaunchCode is how it provides the opportunity to reach into all the communities across Miami, particularly the underserved communities, and provide people a way to get the skills to then move into really compelling jobs in tech,” said Matt Haggman, Miami program director of the Knight Foundation.

LaunchCode has hired a coordinator to lead the local expansion effort and has partnered with Miami Dade College’s new entrepreneurship hub, its Idea Center. LaunchCode has already signed on some companies that will hire apprentices and is actively looking for more, said McKelvey, who bought a vacation home in Miami area in 2010 and made South Florida his family’s permanent home this summer.

During an interview at The LAB Miami Tuesday, McKelvey explained that a typical job seeker coming to LaunchCode would already have some programming skills. LaunchCode would do a skills assessment, and if needed, would connect the seeker with additional education. For this, LaunchCode has partnered with Wyncode and Ironhack, in addition to Miami Dade College, and online training programs such as EdX.

But the key to the model is making the good match, conson idering not just the skills fit but company culture, too. And so far it’s working: Since launching in St. Louis a year ago, 90 percent of LaunchCode’s 130 placements have quickly led to full-time positions with companies such as MasterCard, Enterprise and Anheuser-Busch. Nearly half of the people LaunchCode placed were unemployed before joining the program, and 42 percent did not have a college degree, McKelvey said. LaunchCode has placed people from ages 15 to 59; about 30 percent of its placements were women — that’s a high percentage for tech jobs.

“We were surprised how quickly people can acquire employable skills,” said McKelvey, about his experience in St. Louis. “We had people with no relevant programming skills get to full-time employment in under six months, and these aren’t rare cases. We were also surprised how receptive the companies were.”

Indeed, building the large network of companies willing to take on the apprentices (rather than always opting for the conservative route of selecting people with experience) is the key to success in the LaunchCode model, McKelvey said: “We need to sign up every company in Miami that hires programmers or IT people. The good news is, no company has ever said no.”

Companies commit to considering LaunchCode applicants for low-paying apprenticeships. But these apprenticeships typically last no more than a couple of weeks or months, at which time companies hopefully hire the applicants full time.

Leading LaunchCode’s expansion effort in Miami will be Mariana Rego, a University of Miami industrial engineering graduate who worked for several years at UBS in New York, and recently co-founded Design Thinking Miami, a nonprofit that hosts social and educational events to foster design thinking.

Rego will focus on the first phase of the organization’s development — forming partnerships with Miami area companies. Rego said that in the past two weeks, she has signed on 10 to 15 companies, and she expects to meet with Miami’s biggest employers after the new year.

For instance, Rego said, LaunchCode has already signed up advertising and digital agency República, Univision and its television network Fusion, and tech companies Senzari, YellowPepper and Kairos. “LaunchCode is a unique organization that’s going to have a tremendous impact on South Florida’s tech labor market. República is proud to be one of LaunchCode’s very first committed companies,” said Jorge A. Plasencia, República’s CEO.

Haggman said LaunchCode is an important piece of Knight’s strategy to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that together with MDC’s Idea Center, Venture for America and Enstitute – other recent Knight investments – LaunchCode will help lower barriers in order to match up job seekers with employers. “Our bet is that the talent is here,” Haggman said. “We just have to make it easier to connect employers with the talent.”

Leandro Finol, executive director of Idea Center, said the center plans to model a program after a popular course at Harvard, CS50, an introduction to programming, and once the students prove their skills they will be able to get good jobs through LaunchCode. “We are the perfect partner for LaunchCode. Because we are so massive with many campuses, we are very convenient to all the different companies,” he said.

Companies that want to be a part of LaunchCode should email mariana@launchcode.org. The sign-up process takes less than 10 minutes. Learn more at Launchcode.org.

When LaunchCode is ready for job seekers, there will be an open call, McKelvey said. “We need the next couple of months to work with the companies and identify the jobs and skills so we can do our job and make good matches.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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