Clive Thompson reminds us in Wired that there is a shift in how coders might appear in the workplace. 

Here, in the format of an imagined Q & A, are some thoughts on where we are, philosophically, in getting our local youth into the tech arena.

How can our youth, many without a college degree, compete in the new tech era?

Before the advent of code academies, most practitioners of the arcane arts of coding spent their formative years in four-year Computer Science degree programs in universities or colleges. This career path is changing. A fulfilling and solid career based on focused coding abilities is analogous to a career as a machinist or welder. 

Don't these new jobs in tech require the depth of knowledge that only comes from a four year degree?

Let's look at the world of law. Much of the work behind the scenes at many law firms is handled by paralegals, knowledgeable, tireless, and focused individuals who do not need a law degree to add value to the profession. In the same vein, a four year BS degree in CS is hardly necessary for keeping the web presence of a local business up to snuff. 

Is this like what was known as vocational education back in the 1960s?

There seems to be a swing back toward the rewards of specific, vocational training in tech and code and away from the debt inducing promises of a four year year college degree. To be fair, however, a four year degree can produce the job applicant that a start-up might hire to team-build a new digital world from the get-go.

Why wouldn't a start-up or even an established tech company prefer to hire someone with a four year degree to manage the front end of a company web site?

The simple reason is that the CS major would cost more than the job was worth. An applicant with a solid grounding in, say, JavaScript would be more appropriate. Managing an existing web presence is a perfect entry-level job for a young person with solid and focused training in web programming. 

What computer languages should a young adult learn to break into the tech field?

That is a bit like walking into a dark, beery space with a neon sign reading gnilgneuY in red behind you and, by listening to the loudest members of the crowd, trying to figure out if Ford is better than Chevy. 

The best answer is to look around and see what is being taught locally. Learning code the first time is often easier face-to-face in a structured environment like a classroom. It also helps to investigate what language allows you to do what you want to do digitally. Mobile apps? Web pages? Build games? Hack at the command line or console level? Each has its own proponents. 

Go online to the various forums and listen to the chatter. Listen long enough and you will find a language that sounds worth your time to learn or at least investigate. That is how I was drawn to Python (simple syntax, sense of humor among its developers...).

Note: Whenever I hear someone say that they would rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy (or the digital equivalent), I leave that particular rant because I know I will learn nothing helpful.

So, outside of a CS degree, what would be the best way to learn how to code?

I think that there should be more apprenticeship programs in coding the way that there are for becoming a sheet-metal worker, a plumber, or a diesel mechanic, perhaps a program run by a software company or, in the case of open-source software, by the organization or user group that created it. A certificate could be issued upon completion of the apprenticeship attesting to the apprentice's degree of mastery of the software. 

Just a quick note to let you know what we are up to.

A few weeks ago Tech Collaborative STL came to life on Shaw Avenue on The Hill in St. Louis. Our mission is to help local youth bridge the digital divide with tech literacy through partnerships with the business, tech, education, government, and workforce sectors.

We have been surveying the St. Louis employers who have been hiring youths from STL Youth Jobs  during the past summers about the tech skills they look for in the workplace. We have also been working with organizations who provide youth employment and opportunities, trying to focus on these youth’s specific tech knowledge needs.

Our plans so far include a two week, 80 hour summer training session that covers basic IT (hardware & connectivity) and basic coding; a four hour (multiple evenings or weekend) workshop on specific tech skills; and an all day, 8 hour code marathon (from drag-and-drop to text based programming).

We have been exploring the model of using a microcomputer (the Raspberry Pi from Cambridge in the UK) to teach tech and inspire our youth to become digitally literate, a necessity for career success.

And we have been learning the ins-and-outs of philanthropy and grants-funded community service. In all these endeavors, our hosts have been the Incarnate Word Foundation and The Dana Brown Charitable Trust, both heavily committed to enhancing employment opportunities for St. Louis youth. We owe special thanks to Bridget Flood and our office mates on the 3rd floor of the Mercantile Fair Building; they have introduced us to the heart of St. Louis’ philanthropic community and made us feel very welcome indeed!

Bill Stanard