Sarah Palmer was feeling burnt out and ready to leave her job in the addiction and mental health field in Dayton, Ohio, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Then the pandemic added stress to her job, while also showing her that working from home appealed to her. So in February, she enrolled in Indiana-based Eleven Fifty Academy’s part-time cybersecurity bootcamp in the hopes of building a future where she can continue to work remotely. 

“I’ve always been interested in computers, and working remote one day sounds appealing to me after everything last year,” Palmer said. 

Enrollment in postsecondary education usually rises during recessions as concerns about the labor market mount. But the pandemic recession is an exception. Overall postsecondary enrollment is down 4.2% from a year ago. When colleges and universities shut down in-person learning last spring, many students reconsidered their educational plans amid the uncertainty.

But some programs like those at coding bootcamps and academies bucked the trend as enrollment in online classes from out-of-state applicants rose. As online learning became the only viable option during the pandemic, demand at these vocational schools began to rise as geographic barriers were lifted. With the pandemic leaving millions unemployed and more people considering changing their occupation as a result, bootcamps and academies across the country were primed for a spike in enrollment once they moved online. 

“What’s been different about this [recession] is that traditionally what we see is enrollment up across the board in postsecondary education. Here what we’ve seen is enrollment up but only in those programs that are clearly connected to employment,” said Craig Ryan, managing director at Achieve Partners, an investment firm focused on education and employment. 

Coding academies and bootcamps across the country moved to online learning to avoid shutting down completely. Many found that the shift worked well and plan to continue incorporating this new aspect even after the pandemic ends. This shift allows for more people to gain the skills and training needed to compete for jobs that will be in demand during the economic recovery and beyond.  

The pandemic accelerated an existing trend. While in-person bootcamps vastly outnumber online bootcamps, they have been gaining steam in recent years. Of the 23,043 students who graduated in 2019, 5,519 graduated from online schools – up from 2,022 in 2018.

There are over 100 coding bootcamps in cities across the U.S. and Canada. Each tends to vary by reputation, curriculum, cost, whether it’s in-person or online and beyond. Due to the lack of regulation and standards in the industry, it’s unclear how successful these vocational schools are. One report claims that 83% of bootcamp alumni are employed in programming jobs with an average starting salary of $67,000. 

Even as the industry has taken off since 2011, many remain skeptical of its career-changing promises. Critics have pointed out that coding at a professional level takes years of experience, while most bootcamps run for just a few weeks or months. Others take issue with the high cost of tuition when free alternatives like freeCodeCamp and Coursera are available. 

Despite these concerns, bootcamps and academies continue to attract applicants. 

At Eleven Fifty Academy, enrollment increased to 1,250 in 2020 from 350 in 2019. The academy has been able to accept students from 34 states in the last year alone, according to Paul Wolf, vice president of admissions. Scott Jones, the school’s founder and president, said they plan to have a mix of online, in-person and hybrid classes by June 1. 

Other academies are rewriting their playbook altogether. In Alabama, TrueCoders plans to keep its online format permanently. It admitted 450 students in 2020 – up from 75 in 2019 – according to Cruz Sanchez, vice president of the bootcamp. He said the move to virtual learning will give students flexibility and prepare them for jobs that are moving in a similar direction. 

“I don’t foresee us doing any in-person classes anymore going forward. We’re going to probably stick to the virtual learning from here on out,” Sanchez said. 

Coding bootcamps and academies generally offer programs focused on web development, data science, cybersecurity, and user experience or user interface design. Students don’t graduate with a complete mastery in these areas, but they do walk away with skills that are at the heart of jobs expected to see significant growth in the future. 

Employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, thanks to a greater emphasis on cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data and information security. The median annual wage for occupations in these fields was $91,250 in May 2020 – higher than the median annual wage for all occupations of $41,950. 

More job training and skills development opportunities being available online will be critical to the economic recovery with more than 8.2 million people unemployed above pre-pandemic levels. This is prompting political leaders to come up with solutions.

The JOBS Act, introduced by Senators Tim Kaine and Rob Portman, aims to help students access training for the millions of vacant jobs that are unfilled in part due to a shortage of qualified workers. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan focuses in part on next generation training programs in order to create job opportunities and building back the middle class. 

“Training is getting its second wind in American politics now,” Anthony Carnevale, professor and director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

While coding academies and bootcamps can lead to opportunities in technology, it is not a guarantee. Many places tout where their alumni land, but few offer a complete look at their programs’ success. Only seven academies in the U.S. have their graduate outcomes for the first half of 2020 available on the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, a nonprofit that reports on the coding bootcamp industry. There are more reports from past years but there is still a lack of transparency from a majority of bootcamps and academies. 

These vocational schools have been criticized in the past for teaching skills that are too basic compared to what companies are actually looking for. Many now teach widely used languages and frameworks like Ruby on Rails and Javascript, as well as offering skills in user experience and user interface design and data science. They’ve also faced scrutiny over not preparing students in areas that help get them employed – resume building, networking, interview prep – but this is an area bootcamps and academies claim to have addressed.  

With around three months left before she graduates, Palmer is looking for new job opportunities. She feels she would do well in cybersecurity sales because of her people and communication skills. But Palmer says that if she needs to continue with more education before switching to the field, she will definitely do that because she feels there’s potential for greater opportunities in the future. 

“I love the program. I’m excited to see where it takes me. I’m grateful that stuff like this is out there,” Palmer said. 

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