The state of the technology industry in St. Louis reads like a bad Craigslist missed connection: companies need people, St. Louis has people, but the two just can't match up where it counts.
When Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey -- both St. Louisans and the cofounders of the ubiquitous mobile payment company Square -- needed a home for their new venture, the Lou was at the top of the list.
They needed self-starting, motivated, trained web developers to make that happen. And while St. Louis is full of un- or underemployed development workers ready to build on their tech skills, McKelvey couldn't find enough with the right credentials to choose St. Louis as a home base.
If two hometown boys couldn't make it work here, how can St. Louis compete nationally?
That's where McKelvey's next big idea, Launch Code, comes in.
Launch Code, a new non-profit in St. Louis, convinced 100 companies -- including Lockerdome, BJC Healthcare, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Panera -- to bring on apprentices, folks who don't have a computer sciences degree and documented years of experience but are still talented, trained and motivated enough to do the work.
The sell to businesses is a simple one: The apprentice gets only $15 an hour (compared to the $80,000 median salary for programmers) and pairs with a much more experienced programmer. If the apprentice doesn't work out, the company can release him or her whenever it wants.
The sell to apprentices is even easier: Work in a growing field, gain invaluable experience and get paid to do it.
After only three months, Launch Code has matched 42 people with apprenticeships, with more in the works. Seven of those have been hired on full time.
"We're a route for people who may not have traditional credentials to get good jobs," says Brendan Lind, managing director at Launch Code. "We can spend a ton of money trying to recruit Boeing to come to town, but if we just increased the talent pool in St. Louis, there are jobs waiting for people."
Terrence Bowen was one of those people.
Bowen got into development as a hobby, a way to make his job at FedEx Office simpler and more efficient. He'd use small, simple pieces of code to fix small problems at work, even if he didn't totally know what he was doing.
Continue reading to see how Launch Code set Bowen up with a dream job.
"I'm always thinking of ways to automate, whether it's a task or a chore," Bowen tells Daily RFT. "I came up with all these little scripts and ideas, but I didn't know anything about programming. It grew into a hobby."
Bowen decided to enroll in computer science at UM-St. Louis, but even with a degree, jobs are almost impossible to get. Lind says many of the applicants at Launch Code have degrees from UM-St. Louis, Washington University and other local colleges. One applicant even had a master's degree in computer science from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and couldn't find a job.
"Their application gets thrown out by the HR department," says Lind. "People may have the skills or very close, but they don't have the ability to get their foot in the door. It's a goofy situation."
Bowen applied for a few programming jobs and, just as he expected, heard almost nothing back. Even once he earned his degree, he didn't have enough experience to land a job.
That's when his wife saw a tweet about Launch Code and told him about it. Three months later, Bowen is a developer apprentice at Clearent, the Clayton-based payment processing company.
"To be in the position where you have the job but you don't have the degree, it's once in a lifetime," says Bowen. "In spite of knowing how much I didn't know, Clearent still took me on because they saw potential. They say good habits in my programming. They saw aptitude, motivation, enthusiasm."
Bowen's enthusiasm is palpable. He speaks in circles with the wide-eyed excitement of someone who's discovered a new purpose.
"I feel guilty, like I'm slacking," Bowen says. He's been learning development on his own at night and on weekends, but now, "I wake up and get paid to do it."
The demand for experienced developers is practically infinite, says Lind, and if St. Louis companies can't find people here, they'll look outside Missouri or even overseas. No one wants that, so Launch Code is matching even more Terrence Bowens with St. Louis companies, giving local developers the hands-on experience they need to land jobs on their own and, eventually, attract other companies looking for developers.
"I believe that we'll actually create a talent surplus," McKelvey optimistically tells NPR. "Then you'll start to see companies moving to this region to take advantage of that surplus."
To apply for an apprenticeship through Launch Code or to take free computer programming classes, log on to the Launch Code website. Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at Lindsay.Toler@RiverfrontTimes.com.