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Learning & Tech

A New Credential For The Tech Industry

Merit badges for coders
LA Johnson/NPR
Merit badges for coders
LA Johnson/NPR

A leader in the small but growing industry of "coder boot camps" announced plans today to develop a new set of credentials aimed at certifying the skills these programs teach.

The boot camps have surged in popularity to meet the demand for tech industry jobs such as software developers. That occupation is among the fastest-growing in the nation, projected to add a total of 220,000 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

Despite that demand — and a median annual salary of $93,000 — companies have struggled to fill those jobs.

Not everyone has a computer science degree or the time or money to go back to school for four years. And many traditional colleges don't even teach the latest, most coveted programming languages.

And so the cottage industry of "boot camps" has sprung up in the past couple of years — immersive learning programs with names like Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly, Hack Reactor and more.

They promise to get people up to speed in programming and Web development in a few weeks or months of hard-core, hands-on instruction. So far, despite their ad hoc beginnings, these unaccredited programs are posting very high employment rates for their graduates, in the 75 to 95 percent range.

Today, General Assembly, founded in 2011 in New York City and now with sites in Europe, Asia and Australia, announced its new credentialing plan.

The first credential, for Web development, will be published in 2015. It will be awarded on the completion of a so-called "challenge set" — a set of software-related tasks that will be reviewed by partner employers, initially including GE, PayPal, and Elance-oDesk, an online marketplace for temps and freelancers.

More or less, it's a test-based certificate, a "microcredential." It will be free to participants and employers and open to everyone, not just General Assembly's students.

Jake Schwartz, co-founder and CEO of General Assembly, explains that in an earlier era of the software industry, companies including Microsoft, Cisco and Adobe introduced certificates for their proprietary software programs. Anyone could earn those certifications and use them to find jobs. But, he added, today's mobile apps and websites rely largely on more open programming languages like Java and Ruby.

The upside is, there are lots of ways to get good at these technologies — ranging from free online resources to immersive programs. But up to now, for informal learners, there hasn't been a great way to prove what you know.

"This credential program is solving a major pain point for employers that are seeking candidates with skill sets that have been traditionally difficult to quantify," Schwartz says.

"IT is being re-imagined around us," says Pam Halligan, executive staffing and talent-development manager for GE. "We've got to look broadly to train the next generation of IT professionals, as well as continue to credential, re-skill and up-skill the folks we have."

This new experiment in credentialing comes at a time when the tech industry is trying a range of approaches to address the skills gap as well as increase the diversity of the talent pipeline.

Adda Birnir is the founder of Skillcrush, another informal resource, which provides online technology education and career coaching primarily to women. She says both employers and students feel a need for new credentials: "Our students want to know, 'What kind of certification do I get? How do I prove that I have the skills?' "

The question is: Who is best positioned to provide that?

"It's great to have more objective third parties," Birnir says. She noted the Open Badges Initiative, an effort by the Mozilla Foundation and other organizations, to authenticate the kinds of learning that happen outside traditional school walls.

General Assembly's efforts, she says, raise a question: "Does it mean anything outside GE? Does it mean anything inside GE? The more transparency you can have about what the standards are, how the assessment works, what it means, the better."

Barbara Chang is the founder of Code to Work, an employer-led workforce intermediary that seeks to match job-seekers, skills and opportunities. She agrees employers need a new credentialing system to help them understand "the new modalities of training." But, she says, "Trying to service the need of one or two employers is not the point. We're trying to get all employers to accept students. For that you've got to have a much more open ecosystem."