Kansas City's Tech Market May Need Coding Skills Enough To Drop The B.S. Degree

Mar 11, 2019
Originally published on March 13, 2019 1:42 pm

KANSAS CITY — Seventy hours a week got old. Fast. So did working multiple jobs.

So Joseph Cowsert wept tears of joy and relief the day he got word while bathing his baby daughter that UPS was offering him a 40-hour-a-week position in web development.

“It was like a burden lifted off of me,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was weighing so heavily.”

All that lost time with his wife, his daughters, the friends he rarely saw. He missed them all and yearned for the luxury of having hobbies.

Cowsert lacks a college degree — something that workplaces routinely use to sort applications. Without it, many managers offering better-paying jobs don’t look at a resume twice. Or even once.

A free evening coding school, followed by an apprenticeship, opened doors. The program trains adults for a fast-growing industry ravenous for talent.

Across the country, economic demand for workers trained just right could make four-year college less of an obsession among employers.

Companies, economists and industry leaders want better ways to identify workers with skills. They’re turning to more tailored and affordable credentials, apprenticeships and training programs.

That could change the calculus for the school-aged workers of tomorrow and the underemployed in the job market today. And it could widen paths to prosperity made narrow by college costs that remain out of reach for millions of Americans and only get more expensive year by year.

“People don't have equal access to higher education,” said Molly Scott, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. “Giving different ways to demonstrate skills and knowledge has great potential for sort of leveling the playing field.”

Prime real estate

Square — the company behind that little white dongle that lets you swipe credit cards on a smartphone — started in St. Louis in 2009.

It quickly reopened on the West Coast instead.

As co-founder Jim McKelvey recounts it, back then his Midwestern hometown was hurting for programmers. Growing proved tricky.

It’s the real reason, he argues, that smaller cities so often lose out to big ones. (Remember how many vainly courted Amazon?) Tax breaks and cheap land alone can’t seal a deal.

“No. Just show us you have the talent,” he said. “Show us that you have a population that's ready to come to work.”

McKelvey later returned to St. Louis and began the nonprofit programming school LaunchCode, which then spread to other tech-hungry towns, including Kansas City. Its classes helped work-weary Cowsert study up, land his apprenticeship and switch jobs.

Nationally, coding boot camps have become all the rage, with price tags sometimes upward of $10,000. LaunchCode lives instead on grants, donations and fees from the companies who recruit its students.

Its classes break the mold for computer programming, attracting racial and ethnic minorities underrepresented in the world of tech — and at colleges.

If Kansas’ state universities looked like its high schools, there’d be far more black and Hispanic students.

Not only are black and Hispanic Kansans less likely than their white peers to have a bachelor’s degree, census numbers suggest they’re less likely than blacks and Hispanics elsewhere in the country.

Untapped potential

Fewer than 450 Kansans graduated with four-year degrees in computer science in 2017, compared to the current 2,200 related job openings in the state, the advocacy group Code.org says.

In the Kansas City area alone, the KC Tech Council estimates more than 600 jobs open up annually for software programmers and other computer specialties. Those are jobs that pay far better than your average gig.

Industry watchers like Perla Weaver shake their heads in frustration. Many would-be coders struggle to find footing in the field, despite the healthy demand.

The problem? Companies hunger for experienced programmers, says Weaver, a former Texas Instruments engineer and now a professor of computer science at Johnson County Community College. Job ads ask for years of experience and a litany of skills.

This language and this language and this tool,” she said. “It’s just — it’s an endless list.”

Even internship programs targeting budding computer scientists with two years of college under their belt often shut out her students, she said. The companies limit entry to applicants enrolled in four-year degrees instead.

Weaver wants to see change in a corporate culture that often sees people with bachelor’s degrees as somehow blessed with greater dedication and grit.

“A community college student who’s here, who finishes a two-year degree, has tackled an enormous amount of challenges,” she says. “Most of my students work full-time and are students full-time. What are we trying to demonstrate — (whether) they’re committed to a program? Oh my goodness they’re committed.”

She wants to see more companies open pathways that lead straight from non-bachelor’s credentials to jobs. Efforts, she says, like Google rolled out last year.

The tech giant teamed with Coursera and a few dozen community colleges to offer an eight-month program in information technology support. Nearly 30 other corporations — Walmart, Hulu, Intel, H&R Block — asked for lists of its graduates.

Nearly 50,000 students enrolled — more than a fifth on full scholarships for low-income earners, veterans and refugees. Average pay for computer support jobs in the US tops $50,000 a year.

Natalie Van Kleef Conley developed the program after running Google’s internal IT support. Her company was pinched for qualified applicants.

Prioritizing a specialized, skills-based training over traditional college degrees, she said, was a chance both to open doors for more people and fill industry demand.

“Companies increasingly have technology,” she said. “The technology is going to break, the networks are going to fail, the mobile phones are going to go down.”

Tech city

Since 2011, more than 8,000 new tech jobs have cropped up in Kansas City. The city now ranks in the top 15 metros for its size and share of the nation’s tech workers. More than a fifth of its 50,000 tech jobs today involve programming, the Mid-America Regional Council says.

Java and the database language SQL rank among the most in-demand languages.

Employers advertise for bachelor’s degrees above all, but KC Tech Council president Ryan Weber urges them to reconsider. Most tech jobs don’t need it, he argues, and applicants have associate’s degrees as often as bachelor’s.

“If you’re trying to reach new candidates, take the ‘bachelor’s degree’ requirement out,” he said.

Obvious, in a sense, but economists say the Great Recession fueled degree-inflated hiring practices that later proved hard for human resources departments to shake.

Burning Glass Technologies analyzed millions of job ads across the country and found companies tacking bachelor’s requirements onto jobs that likely don’t need them. That happened even for information technology, or IT, support, a tech-world springboard to upward mobility.

Harvard Business School researchers warn of a paradox. Companies seek bachelor’s degrees that aren’t really needed, even when hard pressed to fill jobs and even though college grads often cost more and may leave their jobs more readily.

Dismissed by Degrees: How Degree Inflation is Undermining US Competitiveness

Harvard found signs that as many as 6 million jobs across the country carry inflated requests for unnecessary bachelor’s degrees — a trend that especially hurts low-income, black and Hispanic job seekers.

It suggested companies with middle-skills openings step away from that academic filter and scope out apprenticeships, certificate programs and other kinds of training.

Opportunity knocked

When something coveted becomes cheap, snap it up while you can.

Businesses took that lesson to heart during the recession. Hordes of college graduates and experienced professionals found themselves unemployed and willing to grab on lower-rung jobs.

So employers slapped way more requirements on their ads and went fishing.

For “the Jesus candidate.”

“A candidate who had everything you could possibly want,” said economist Alicia Sasser Modestino, a professor at Northeastern University. A bachelor’s degree. Five years of experience. Project management. IT skills. “Everything you could think of.”

If you reeled one in, says Sasser Modestino, you hired. Otherwise, you held off while the economy healed.

Years later, as the market bounced back, the jobless rate didn’t. Not to the extent economists expected.

Now evidence shows “credential creep” was at play. It continued for years before companies began backing down and probably accounted for a third of the jump in demand for applicants with more experience and more degrees, Sasser Modestino says.

That’s cause for injecting caution into a common narrative that more students need degrees — especially bachelor’s degrees.

“The focus on the four-year college degree has really led us to overshoot and actually to encourage some youth to go to college who will never complete,” says Sasser Modestino. “People exit with debt and no credential, and to some extent, it’s kind of worse.”

Help wanted

For years, employers have reported very real workforce shortages in health care, computing and manufacturing.

Yet economists offer differing pictures of the economy’s thirst for more college, how employers should tackle their shortages and whether a skills gap and credential gap are the same thing.

  • Georgetown University researchers say many more students need education beyond high school than receive it. Their findings feed aggressive goals in states such as Kansas to get many more teens to tech college, community college, or beyond.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has declined so far to weigh in on just how much the job market thirsts for higher education. But a technical paper exploring potential ways to determine that expressed concern that Georgetown’s math overstated demand and that many two and four-year degree holders aren’t pulling in bigger paychecks for their investment.
  • The Urban Institute warns nearly two-thirds of jobs don’t require studies past high school at the entry level, but nearly that many American adults already have higher education. More people getting degrees doesn’t make jobs for those degrees materialize.

Equally or more difficult for employers, some analysts say, is the fact that U.S. joblessness recently dropped to a nearly 50-year low. Kansas closed out last year at 3.3 percent unemployment.

“It’s important to note that the workforce shortage is due to too few people,” said Tyler Tenbrink, at the Kansas Department of Labor. “Not due to a lack of education of the Kansas labor force.”

His agency surveys employers on unfilled jobs. Typically, Kansas has two or three unemployed people per vacancy. Right now, it’s down to one.

What economists across the board do seem to agree on is that helping students and mid-career workers find cost-effective routes to good jobs makes sense.

That resonates with Yemeda Grayson, another LaunchCode student who previously worked in insurance but loved dabbling in software languages such as Java and yearned to make that a career.

A bachelor’s degree? That’s a lot of time and money that Grayson says he doesn’t have. But this program, he hopes, will put a tech job within reach.

“That way I can get my foot in the door without having a huge lump sum of money up front,” he said, “as the kind of gatekeeper to keep me away from it.”

This is Part Seven in our series on college and careers. Here are the rest: Part One on the advent of the "college economy," Part Two on planning life after high school, Part Three on Kansas' tech college boom, Part Four on free dual credit classes for high schoolers, Part Five on state investment in engineering education, and Part Six on college major tips.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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