Inclusive and equitable tech reskilling at LaunchCode in St. Louis

Computer coding class

During the pandemic, the employment gap between Black and Hispanic Americans and white Americans reached record highs. They were the first fired and the last hired. At the same time, while the technology sector is struggling to fill 410,000 open computing jobs nationwide, only around 72,000 computer science graduates will enter the workforce this year. Yet, widened by the pandemic, the technological skills gap in computer science—which disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic individuals—continues to grow. Of projected computer science graduates, less than 20% are women, less than 8% are Black, and less than 9% are Hispanic.

While many companies have expressed a willingness to move towards more equity-focused hiring practices, this is not enough to break the cycle of exclusion. Employers tend to look to higher education institutions to find high-skilled candidates, especially in STEM fields, yet structural barriers often exclude people of color from entering higher education. In response, technology boot camps and other re-skilling programs have emerged as alternative routes to building in-demand technical skills.

However, due to inadequate recruitment and retention strategies in many boot camps, as well as implicit and explicit biases in employment practices, people of color still face barriers in gaining access to and benefitting from these programs. Recognizing this shortcoming, LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based technology training organization, implemented a new model for equitable re-skilling by combining computer science training with a paid apprenticeship and by altering its recruitment and retention efforts. We partnered with LaunchCode to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts in increasing equity in program admission and persistence. Below, we find that LaunchCode was able to increase the share of women, persons of color, and individuals with less coding experience in their cohorts, and by doing so diversify the technology workforce in St. Louis.

Advancing equity through entrance and retention efforts

In addition to courses that focus on high growth, high-value, and high-tech skills in computer science, LaunchCode, unlike many boot camps, combines computer science courses with a paid apprenticeship program. These apprenticeships ease the transition to the labor market as students apply their new technical skills with a local employer, as well as gain soft skills in the workplace. Perhaps most importantly, the apprenticeship model helps pay for the cost of a student’s courses, making LaunchCode free—an important factor to increase student diversity. Students can complete the program part time in 20 weeks by attending courses at night and completing much of the coursework on their own time. This gives students the opportunity to work during the day, which can be especially important for students supporting themselves and their families. In spite of these structural opportunities, initial cohorts, though more diverse than commonly found in the technology workforce, did not meet the diversity goals that LaunchCode was striving towards.

To better promote racial and gender equity, the organization changed its recruitment strategies, admissions policies, and retention efforts. First, they increased their presence in majority Black and Hispanic communities and offered “discovery” pre-courses for those new to coding. Second, they set admission benchmarks to reflect the population St. Louis, which is 40% Black, 10% Hispanic, and 50% female. Third, they incorporated a more holistic approach to admissions by adding essays and interviews in addition to test scores. Finally, LaunchCode dedicated more resources to retention efforts, including a student support specialist.

To explore the impact of these policy changes, we examined entrance and persistence patterns based on LaunchCode’s 5,179 applicants across six cohorts from January 2017 to April 2019. The first three cohorts began prior to the policy changes.

Increased admission and course completion among women, people of color, and new coders

Following the admissions policy changes, we find that LaunchCode cohorts admitted more Black students, female students, and students with fewer hours of prior coding experience. The proportion of admitted Black students in the cohorts after the policy changes increased sixteen percentage points to make up 37% of the latter cohorts; female students and students with less than five hours of prior coding experience each increased seven percentage points after the policy changes to make up 46% and 47% of the latter cohorts, respectively.

These changes are not only reflected in course admissions, but in course completions as well. Below, figures 1, 2, and 3 compare the composition of students completing the program by race, gender, and previous coding experience before and after the policy changes. Similarly, we find that Black, Asian, and Hispanic students, female students, and students with fewer prior hours of prior coding experience make up a larger proportion of course completers after the policy changes. Future research is needed to explore the degree to which these improvements can be seen in the apprenticeship phase as well.

Increased racial diversity in students completing coursework after policy change.

More women complete coursework after policy change.

Students with fewer prior coding hours more likely to complete coursework after policy change.


Maximizing equity: Eight lessons for re-skilling stakeholders

As companies indicate a desire for a more diverse skilled workforce, it is time to take them up on their offer. While re-skilling programs can be a major vehicle for advancing equity in the technology sector, they are also prone to the same barriers that women and people of color have faced in traditional STEM preparation programs.

To maximize equity in these non-traditional STEM preparation programs, policymakers, business leaders, and stakeholders across re-skilling programs, boot camps, and other alternative education programs should consider these lessons from LaunchCode:

  1. Make re-skilling programs free;
  2. Provide part-time options for individuals that must continue working;
  3. Work with local employers to offer paid apprenticeships alongside re-skilling programs;
  4. Increase recruitment efforts in minority communities;
  5. Offer “pre-courses” for those new to coding;
  6. Set benchmarks that reflected the diversity of the city in which it is located;
  7. Incorporate a more holistic approach to admissions beyond test scores (e.g., consider incorporating essays and interviews); and
  8. Dedicate staff resources to retention efforts (e.g., consider creating a student support specialist)