LaShana Lewis knew she could find a better job than managing a help desk. Growing up, Lewis had been intrigued by technical problems, and a high school teacher, recognizing her aptitude, had encouraged her to pursue a computer science major in college. Lewis managed to complete three and a half years of a degree before running out of scholarship funding, but on the job market, her coding skills seemed worthless. "It was a lot of people asking me, ‘Did you complete your degree?’ Not, ‘Do you know how to code?’ " she says. Adding to her frustration, Lewis kept hearing companies claim that they couldn’t find tech talent in St. Louis. "You’re jumping up and down, waving your hand," she recalls. "[You’re yelling,] ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ " No one seemed to be listening.
That changed when Lewis stumbled upon an all-female study group at the St. Louis–based nonprofit LaunchCode in 2014. Created by Square cofounder and St. Louis native Jim McKelvey, the three-year-old LaunchCode offers skills-building classes and workshops for would-be engineers and coders in a growing number of U.S. cities. But its primary aim is to close the pipeline gap between training and employment by placing qualified job candidates—with or without college credentials—in paid apprenticeships at its nearly 500 partner companies, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and ad agency R/GA. With the help of LaunchCode, Lewis became an engineering apprentice at MasterCard in the fall of 2014; after three months, she moved into a full-time job. This past March, she was promoted.
Through its St. Louis headquarters and year-and-a-half-old Miami outpost, LaunchCode has found apprenticeships for more than 360 people, with 86% of them still working in comparable tech positions six months later. With the help of executive director Brendan Lind, McKelvey is lining up more employers, many of which pay a $5,000 fee for every apprentice they hire, bringing the nonprofit closer to self-sufficiency. This spring, he opened centers in Providence, Rhode Island, and Kansas City, Missouri. If it works in St. Louis, he believes, LaunchCode can work anywhere. "Show me a place that doesn’t have the [tech talent] problem," he says.
The inspiration for LaunchCode stretches back to 2009, when McKelvey and his Square cofounder, Jack Dorsey, opened an office in their hometown of St. Louis. "We couldn’t hire people without raiding other companies," McKelvey recalls. That precipitated a series of unpleasant conversations with other local CEOs. Eventually, McKelvey and Dorsey had enough, and they moved the entire engineering department to San Francisco.
Closing Square in St. Louis haunted McKelvey. With the burgeoning ecosystem of coding boot camps and online university classes, learning how to program had never been easier—yet talent still seemed elusive. "If it’s so easy to get these skills and these are good jobs, why aren’t people getting hired?" he remembers thinking. "Why is the economy broken?"
It took McKelvey four years to home in on an answer: knowing how to code is not enough. "Not looking right, not having the right credentials, pick the thing that disqualifies you and you’re in the trash," he says. Employers needed to look beyond candidates with traditional four-year degrees. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs by 2020, but only 400,000 new computer science graduates. Having stepped out of his day-to-day role at Square, McKelvey set out to change companies’ hiring practices.
He reached out to the same St. Louis–area CEOs who used to call him and offered them a deal: McKelvey and his team would find job candidates who could prove through a test and an interview that they had basic programming skills; the companies would offer these coders internships that paid about $15 per hour. One hundred companies signed up for the pilot in 2013; 400 candidates applied. Forty met LaunchCode’s criteria—and 37 of them graduated into salaried jobs.
The next step was figuring out how to train those other 360 people. LaunchCode began organizing study groups around Harvard’s introductory programming class, CS50, which online-learning platform edX offers for free. The class is now a core part of LaunchCode’s offerings. "[McKelvey] is getting market acceptance of these online credentials by talking to CEOs and showing them the vision," says edX CEO Anant Agarwal.
McKelvey is also championing a more diverse talent pool. "[A tech education] is a tool for empowerment," says St. Louis community engagement manager Crystal Martin. About 60% of LaunchCode’s apprentices were previously unemployed, and 30% do not have a college degree. So far, 27% have been women and 40% have been nonwhite. "These are magic moments," McKelvey says of placing LaunchCode graduates in the workforce. "But they’re also moving the needle, because these magic moments are infinitely scalable."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.