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Obama calls for effort to boost high-tech training, hiring

President Barack Obama speaks at the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2015. Targeting stagnant wages in an otherwise improving economy, the president is calling on employers, educational institutions and local governments to ramp up training and hiring of high-technology in an effort to drive up higher-income employment. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Barack Obama on Monday launched a new federal effort to train workers for high-technology service jobs, and cited an ambitious St. Louis effort to train software coders as a model.

Obama’s program, dubbed TechHire, will provide $100 million in competitive Labor Department grants to help employers and local governments train tech workers, he said in a speech at a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve got to keep positioning ourselves for a constantly changing global economy,” Obama said. “If we’re not producing enough tech workers, over time that’s going to threaten our leadership in global innovation, which is the bread and butter of the 21st-century economy.”

Other key elements of TechHire include developing partnerships with employers to hire newly trained workers and promoting cooperation among existing high-job training programs in about 20 regions nationwide.

TechHire aims to duplicate and expand efforts already being done by organizations such as LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization founded in St. Louis in 2013 to train software coders.

LaunchCode already has placed people in apprenticeships in 10 states, including more than 130 in St. Louis, and has set a goal to have placements in all 50 states by the end of the year. More than 90 percent of its apprentice positions convert to full-time jobs.

During Monday’s speech, Obama highlighted LaunchCode’s efforts and pointed out a local success story: LaShana Lewis, a LaunchCode participant who now works at MasterCard in O’Fallon, Mo.

Lewis, who grew up in East St. Louis, was a bus driver before she took classes last year through LaunchCode to hone her skills writing computer code. Her apprenticeship with MasterCard ultimately led to a full-time job as an associate engineer.

“Because she didn’t have a college degree, she couldn’t get an interview,” Obama said during his announcement, adding that she had the skills and “LaunchCode went to bat for her.”

At MasterCard’s global technology and operations headquarters in O’Fallon, the company reached out to LaunchCode in spring 2014 as part of its effort to recruit more female technical talent, MasterCard’s senior vice president of human resources Mark Dryer told the Post-Dispatch.

MasterCard had two apprentices in the summer who were hired in August, and has 10 open positions for apprenticeships this year.

“St. Louis is a very good place for technical talent for MasterCard, but there are pockets (lacking) in certain niche technical areas,” he said. “We’re very pleased with the results.”

EXPANDING LAUNCHCODE

St. Louisan Jim McKelvey, co-founder of LaunchCode, traveled to Washington to attend the TechHire announcement as a guest of the White House, along with LaunchCode co-founder and executive director Brendan Lind.

McKelvey, owner of Third Degree Glass Factory in St. Louis and co-founder of San Francisco-based mobile payment system Square, said the Obama administration’s backing for training for tech jobs will accelerate LaunchCode’s growth to more cities.

Founded to spur economic development and raise St. Louis’ profile as a place for companies to tap into coding talent, LaunchCode provides computer programming training, apprenticeships and job placement.

Based in St. Louis’ Cortex district, LaunchCode has expanded to Miami and now it will open in multiple cities by the end of the year, McKelvey said by phone Monday. “We’ve been working with the White House on this closely for months,” he said. “It’s working well in St. Louis, and it will work well nationally.”

McKelvey said LaunchCode is effective because the nonprofit first works closely with companies to identify what their specific coding needs are.

“We’re exceptionally good at fitting candidates’ qualities to companies’ needs,” he said.

This year, LaunchCode partnered with St. Louis Community College and the city of St. Louis’ workforce department, SLATE, to offer a free 20-week coding boot camp for unemployed St. Louisans, called reBootU.

“We’re building a national model to demonstrate new ways to bridge the tech talent gap,” LaunchCode program director Alex Miller said in an interview.

Among the communities that have pledged to participate in TechHire are New York City; Louisville, Ky.; Detroit; Nashville, Tenn.; San Francisco; and Kansas City.

The new federal initiative is designed to prepare workers for a growing number of technology jobs. According to the White House, of the 5 million jobs available today, more than half a million positions are in fields such as software development, network administration and cybersecurity.

TechHire has obtained commitments from more than 300 employers nationwide to expand access to those tech jobs.

The bulk of those offers are in the St. Louis area, where more than 150 local employers — including Monsanto, Citi, Enterprise Holdings and Anheuser-Busch — have committed to place 250 apprentices in jobs this year through LaunchCode.

“In the last five years, there's a been a real explosion of entrepreneurship in St. Louis in all tech sectors, including IT,” said Dennis Lower, president and CEO of the Cortex bioscience and technology district where LaunchCode is based. LaunchCode has helped provided needed coding training for startups and larger companies as the tech sector here has grown, he said.

“Everyone is having a challenge recruiting IT talent, and this sends a message to people outside of St. Louis that St. Louis is becoming a tech hot spot in the country," Lower said. 

Elsewhere, companies including Google, Facebook and Microsoft have committed to providing college students in New York City paid internships through the City University of New York. Also as part of the TechHire initiative, new software boot camps also are forming in the state of Delaware and Louisville, Ky.

Obama’s attention to technology comes as the unemployment rate is dropping, but wages still remain flat. According to the White House, the average salary for workers with high-tech skills is 50 percent higher than the average private-sector American job.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lisa Brown is Business Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.