“Now we spend time preparing people for job interviews,” Rocchi says. “We help them get resumes ready. We teach them how to manage their time—basic professional skills.”
It’s this full-rounded training that has garnered Grand Circus national notice and—even more important––results on the job market: It’s received funding from Google and is part of the White House TechHire initiative, which seeks to fill 120,000 open positions around the country. Some 40 percent of its students are female; 45 percent are people of color; and about 30 percent do not hold bachelor’s degrees. Once students complete a boot camp, more than nine in 10 are placed in a developer track position within three months.
Like Detroit, Philadelphia has a dearth of qualified programmers, who earn more than $57,000 to start. “Ninja” programmers command over $150,000. “You can program your way out of poverty and into prosperity” says DreamIt’s David Bookspan.
“We have seen trust build over time among employers,” Rocchi says. “When we started, there was a lot of cynicism that we could train someone in eight to 12 weeks, and have them be useful in a job, relative to a four-year degree. Our employers really value the students and Grand Circus for nurturing that talent, and have shown a greater willingness to hire our people.”
Originally from Australia, Rocchi came to Detroit in the mid-90s for a consulting job with Australian National Bank. He stayed after meeting his now-wife, a native of suburban Detroit. After a stint at Wharton—and nearly a decade of living in Australia—the couple moved back just as Detroit was declaring bankruptcy and trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub. The problem was: You can’t be a tech hub if you don’t have trained technologists. Rocchi, who had started investing in the city’s plentiful real estate opportunities, opened Grand Circus in 2013. Now, he has a staff of 12, and has trained 200 students through the boot camps.
Like Detroit, Philadelphia is positioning itself as a city that fosters technology companies. It also has a dearth of qualified programmers—and a lot of residents who need high-paying jobs. David Bookspan, founding partner in start up accelerator DreamIt Ventures and founder and board member of Monetate, says entry level computer programmers start at more than $57,000 on average, and experienced “ninja” programmers command over $150,000.
That makes the potential for transforming low-wage workers’ lives enormous.
“I cannot think of a more certain way to ensure high-paying jobs for students than to teach them programming proficiency,” he says. “You can program your way out of poverty and into prosperity. Today, if you can code well, you will have a job for the rest of your life.”
Could a version of Grand Circus work here? Philly has programs with similar elements, but none under the same roof that offer such well-rounded services. The New York Code + Design Academy, for example, offers courses in web development and front end and back end development at its Philadelphia campus at The Hub, a meeting site in Center City. An Illinois-based non-profit group called Creating IT Futures Foundation recently held a pop up program in Philly called IT Ready to place people 35 and older in tech jobs; participants had to bring their skills to the table. Coded by Kids, provides free weekly classes to teach inner city students web development skills,, while TechGirlz seeks to provide girls in middle-school with experiences that might inspire them to pursue related careers in science, engineering and technology.
The closest thing to Grand Circus is the new Zip Code program in Wilmington that’s being run by a Philly-based non-profit called Tech Impact. Earlier this month, Zip Code graduated its first class of 16 students from its 12-week Java Boot Camp. The graduates, who previously made $25,000 a year or less on average, have all received either offers of apprenticeships or full-time jobs with annual salaries of $55,000 a year on average, according to the program. The positions will come from six Delaware employers, including JP Morgan, Capital One and Christiana Care, which agreed to hire its students at the outset.
Driven by Wilmington’s inclusion as a TechHire center, the Delaware governor’s office played a leading role in the non-profit Zip Code’s creation and provided a significant chunk of its $1 million in start up costs. The remainder was raised by co-founders Jim Stewart, Porter Schutt and Ben DuPont. Zip Code’s focus on so-called “back end” skills in Java and .net also make the program ideally-suited to the banking and financial services companies operating in Delaware. Students were required to cover $2,000 of the $12,000 tuition, with the remainder to be paid back through the internships or employers. (Students who earned less than $28,000 a year were eligible to receive a scholarship to cover the $2,000 initial payment.)
Tech Impact, which plans to offer classes for about 100 students in 2016, would readily do the same in Philly, where one in three members of the first class live—if there were funding. That would likely require a similar partnership between government and private companies in Philly looking for skilled workers. “It is an economic opportunity for the city, but it requires some forward thinking,” says Patrick Callihan, Tech Impact’s executive director.
Header Photo: Flickr/Dmitry Baranovskiy